The Register has an amusing story about a local TV station whose story about Alexa sparked a distributed purchasing spree. In reporting on a six-year-old who accidentally prompted her parents’ Amazon Echo to order a $160 dollhouse, a news presenter spoke aloud the phrase “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse.”
The TV station subsequently received a number of complaints from viewers whose Alexa-powered gadgets heard the broadcast and subsequently attempted to order them dollhouses. As the article notes, Alexa devices have voice purchasing enabled by default. When combined with Amazon’s 1-click order settings, this can be a recipe for some accidental shopping.
I’m a bit surprised I’ve never heard about this problem popping up before. If Amazon’s gadgets are sensitive enough to obey voice commands from anyone, that ought to be a problem any time some character in a TV show gives Alexa a spoken instruction. In any event, giving a voice-recognition box the power to place Amazon orders by default seems like opening a can of worms. Apart from TV shows, it means any houseguest could play havoc with your Amazon account just by making free with the word “Alexa.” You can set Alexa to require a 4-digit code, which will be great for preventing accidents—but anyone who’s around when you make an order will hear that code the first time you give it.
It puts me in mind of the old story I once heard about someone’s demonstration of voice command prompts for a computer, in which a member of the audience yelled out “Format C colon!” Probably apocryphal, but a great demonstration of the problem with setting a computer to do whatever anyone tells it to.
This news story is sensationalistic and an exaggeration. If you try to order anything via the Echo, Alexa will come back with the top search result for that item or a matching item from your order history or wish list, describe the item, give the price and ask for a confirmation that you want to buy it. You must confirm that you want to buy the item before it places any order. I believe the six year old ordered the dollhouse and confirmed the order, but there was little actual risk of the news story placing any orders without someone confirming the order. Note that the news story said that people complained that Alexa “tried” to place an order, not that she actually did. And if you want to avoid the possibility of the TV triggering your Echo, change the wake word to Echo and the risk is almost nonexistent.
I’m rather surprised criminals haven’t taken advantage of this already. You wouldn’t even need to break into someone house to rob them. The steps:
1. Discover that they have Alex and in what room. Find out when they will be away for a few days. It’d also be best to pick a neighborhood where few are around in the day time. Think of a rich neighborhood with homes on large lots.
2. Wait until they are away, place a speaker on the window of Alexia’s room and order something small but expensive. Have it delivered the next day.
3. Be there the next day, perhaps idling away on their front porch when that pricey item is delivered. Depart quickly.
The only real hitch in lies with #1.
Quite frankly, I fail to see the value of Alexia. No only is ordering easy the old way—I just ordered a used book via Amazon—having to go to a bit more trouble is a plus. Spending money should not be too easy.
Of course, that’s Amazon’s point with Alexia. They want to make spending money with them as easy as possible.
The value of Alexa is not in ordering (well, that may be the value to Amazon, but not to the consumer). The value of Alexa is in home automation – being able to turn on and off lights by voice when your hands are full, being able to turn off all the lights in the house with one command, being able to play music in any room with just a statement, being able to turn on the entertainment center and set all the devices to the appropriate inputs from a completely different room so that your TV is on and ready when you enter, being able to pause or play what you are watching without having to hunt down the remote, and being able to get instant answers to common questions like the weather forecast, the travel times, sports scores/times, etc is where the value is.