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Privacy AI

Amazon Explains Why Alexa Recorded And Emailed A Private Conversation (mercurynews.com) 163

Amazon has issued the following statement about why their Alexa device recorded a woman's private conversation and then emailed it to one of her friends: Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like "Alexa." Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a "send message" request. At which point, Alexa said out loud "To whom?" At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, "[contact name], right?" Alexa then interpreted background conversation as "right." As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.
This apparently didn't satisfy the woman whose conversation was recorded, according to the Mercury News:
Now her family has unplugged all the devices, and although Amazon offered to "de-provision" the devices of their communications features so they could keep using them to control their home, Danielle and her family reportedly want a refund instead.

When reached Friday, an Amazon spokeswoman would not comment about whether the company will issue a refund.

Other smart home speakers carry similar privacy risks. Last year, for example, Google had to release a patch for its Home Mini speakers after some of them were found to be recording everything.

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Amazon Explains Why Alexa Recorded And Emailed A Private Conversation

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  • Not a bug (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:40PM (#56679586)

    Its a feature and working as intended

    • Re:Not a bug (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @05:14PM (#56679732) Homepage

      This.

      They bought a device that listens to what you say and sends it to other people.

      It listened, it sent. Where's the problem?

      • Re:Not a bug (Score:5, Insightful)

        by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @07:07PM (#56680170)

        Stupid people that do not even begin to understand the technology they bought in bright-eyed enthusiasm. Of course, it is the technologies fault now.

        Now, I do not plan to bring such a listening device into my home, ever. But if I were to, I would at least familiarize myself with how it works...

        • by jtgd ( 807477 )

          Stupid people that do not even begin to understand the technology they bought in bright-eyed enthusiasm.

          Fine. But I don't have a problem with expecting Amazon to issue refunds to these stupid people. The technology isn't for everyone and Amazon should understand that.

          • by Xenx ( 2211586 )
            A refund within the return period, sure. Otherwise, it's still on the customer.
          • by gweihir ( 88907 )

            As Amazon is not allowed to stop selling to stupid people, why do you think they should issue refunds to stupid people? Is there some logic to your expectation?

            • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

              Is there any logic to your life? I think your parents should be issued a refund, and you should be buried in a landfill.

            • by jtgd ( 807477 )

              As Amazon is not allowed to stop selling to stupid people, why do you think they should issue refunds to stupid people? Is there some logic to your expectation?

              Because it's good for business. Like mail order places that are more lenient with returns because they know people aren't able to examine a product like they would in a store. Perhaps you adhere to the "greedy capitalist" school of business: screw the customer at every chance.

        • What they didn't share was the full details of the recording. Here's the unedited transcript:

          Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like "Alexa."

          mixed in with rhythmic meat-slapping-on-meat sounds and moaning.

          Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a "send message" request.

          Well, it wasn't really a conversation, just more meat sounds and grunting, although if you're really imaginative you can possibly turn some of them into "send message".

          At which point, Alexa said out loud "To whom?" At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list.

          Mom.

          Alexa then asked out loud, "Mom, right?" Alexa then interpreted background conversation as "right."

          Technical what was said was "Oh yes, right, give it to me", but we'll give you that one.

          Followed by more meat-slapping sounds and "Was that all?".

      • by mark-t ( 151149 )

        Actually, it listens to what you say and then just goes and does it.

        What you can tell it to do may include, for example in this instance, recording a conversation and sending it to someone else.

        The problem here was that it went and did something that it had thought someone had told it do when the person didn't intend for that to happen.

      • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

        You deserve to have 3 tons of manure dumped on your face.

    • Well, not quite. It did mistake several verbal phrases as commands or responses, which were apparently different from what the owner of the device intended. The "bug" isn't that it sent a message based on a verbal command, but rather, that it misunderstood what was being said.

    • by I75BJC ( 4590021 )
      Shades of M$ The issue is that this is not in Amazon's sales literature OR the literature that came in my 2 Echos. I am happy with my Echos. I use one for an alarm. I am deaf and will wake up when the light turns on at the set time. There are other ways to do this but I am pleased with the interaction of the Echo with the Kasa device and app to accomplish this task. It would be nice if there were greater options for the "Wake Name" but even "computer" is probably better than "Alexa" for eliminating the
  • You want privacy? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jawtheshark ( 198669 ) * <slashdot.jawtheshark@com> on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:40PM (#56679590) Homepage Journal
    You want privacy? Don't use these assistants. It's not that hard.
    • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:50PM (#56679636)

      You want privacy? Don't use these assistants. It's not that hard.

      Agreed, but there seems to be a growing assumption that people will have them.

      I just noticed that TiVo added "Amazon Alexa" (along with "Get New Experience") to the App sub-menu on my device and neither item can be removed. Seems presumptuous. I will *never* have an Alexa (or similar device) in my home and will never willingly upgrade to their New Experience (which, like the new Amazon interface, seems horrible, unnecessarily busy and dumbed-down).

      Just my $0.02.

      • "Smart" my a** (Score:5, Insightful)

        by jabberw0k ( 62554 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:56PM (#56679662) Homepage Journal
        Computers are scary, but call them "telephones" and folks trust them. Meanwhile, anything euphemistically called "smart" really means "a computer you do not, and cannot, control." Those of us without such nefarious gadgets are increasingly treated as second-class citizens. You want a taxi? Sorry, we got rid of those, and without a "smart" so-called "telephone" you can't get a ride anymore. Everyone on the street goes around in a daze under the spell of these gadgets. Remember, we have always been at war with Oceania...
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Agreed, but there seems to be a growing assumption that people will have them.

        As others have already said, it's not an assumption. It's a push. They (advertisers) want this tech everywhere so they can monitize every aspect of your existance. Nothing more and nothing less.

        In your example, if Alexa is hooked up to your TiVo, they (Amazon) can get information about what shows you are watching, when, how long, and if you are paying attention to it or not. They (Amazon) can then turn around and sell this informa

      • People just want something like "Computer" from Star Trek TNG. Unfortunately it's apparently completely legal for these companies to pretend that's what they're selling.

        • by arth1 ( 260657 )

          People just want something like "Computer" from Star Trek TNG.

          Including the square wave beep sequence.
          I don't see that happen, but perhaps we'll get approach sensing pneumatic whoosh-doors before I die.

    • yup, and i disabled Bixby and google voice commands on my phone, and when i feel like big brother is watching me my phone goes in to airplane mode and in to a faraday bag and then in to a metal box, i like a smartphone when i want one, but there are times i want to cut all that intrusive technology off for a while and have a conversation with family & friends.
    • You mean, like, your cell phone? Or Google's Web site? Or Facebook? Or any other major Web site?

      You are tracked everywhere. There is no privacy, even if you don't own a computer or cell phone. You are photographed dozens of times a day just by walking around!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The devices functioned as designed. They listen to things 24/7 and respond accordingly. Its not amazon's fault you let 'someone' inside your home to listen to everything you say. It would be just like a bank teller, or cashier, or waiter misunderstanding you.

    • Re:Why a refund? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Calydor ( 739835 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @05:04PM (#56679690)

      If a bank teller misunderstood you and sent all your money to some random guy you once mentioned you knew you'd probably change banks even if they got all your money back.

    • It didn't function as intended. By design it was meant to activate when someone said "Alexa"; which the user didn't. It was meant to start sending an email when the user told it to send an email, which they didn't.
    • They listen to things 24/7 and respond accordingly

      Not "accordingly".

      They listen to things 24/7, and apparently make up random commands from background noises.

    • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

      And if a waiter misunderstood me and brought the wrong food, I'd send it back and not pay for it. People in service jobs know to be sure they have your attention, and the good ones will confirm when it's clear you are attending. The bad ones don't get tips.

  • by oldgraybeard ( 2939809 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:49PM (#56679632)
    "woke up due to a word in background conversation", "At which point, the background conversation was interpreted" and "Alexa then interpreted background conversation as "right.""

    OK, so these deices ARE listening to everything at all times. But don't worry. It will only be used in good ways.

    I think the PR department is going to be working over time to cover this one over.

    Just my 2 cents ;)
    • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:56PM (#56679660)

      It is unfortunate that people have gotten so inured to the continual harvesting of their personal data by companies like Facebook and Google that they don’t care about this. Last time I mentioned a similar story (where the Google device sent police to someone’s home) to my family, they all suddenly turned into Eric Schmidt - “privacy is dead, get over it”.

      • Not sure why you got tagged as Flamebait ! An Amazon employee maybe ;) lol Just my 2 cents ;)
      • If you chop up a lot of your sentences into individual thoughts then they all make sense. But honestly your post isn't coherent at all.
        Nothing in this story is about harvesting of personal data.
        Facebook and Google are not Amazon.
        Your similar story of having the police dispatched has nothing to do with personal data or privacy.
        Your family's comments don't seem to be related to any of the above either.

        Individually all valid points, but I don't understand why you strung them together in those sentences.

    • by Calydor ( 739835 )

      They HAVE to listen in order to be turned on by their keyword.

      However it's reasonable to assume that simply listening for the activation word or phrase should be handled locally; there's no parsing required, just a simple "Does this match?" comparison.

      • It's not reasonable to assume anything unless manufacturers can provide detailed information on how the devices work. For example, the regular meme that Apple doesn't collect your personal data because they make all their money on hardware, therefore they don't need to collect personal data. Such assumptions are dangerous.

        Innocent until proven guilty is a reasonable thing when it comes to criminal accusations, but I'm far less forgiving when it comes to business, especially when businesses encrypt everyth

    • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

      by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 )

      OK, so these deices ARE listening to everything at all times. But don't worry. It will only be used in good ways.

      Dear Jeff Bezos, Amazon, The Washington Post and FBI,

      Will you each please send Donald Trump an Amazon Alexa? He already hates you and thinks you're spying on him, so you might as well give him an actual reason. Also, this will liven up the news and Twitter feeds a bit.

      Thanks!

    • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @07:00PM (#56680134)

      OK, so these deices ARE listening to everything at all times.

      Well of course they are, how do you think they recognise their code word? There has never been a question of whether they are listening at all times, the question has only ever been if everything is being sent back to be processed by the borg, and as far as anyone has been able to tell the answer to that is no, not until the code word has been identified (or in this case, thought it had been identified).

      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        Well of course they are, how do you think they recognise their code word? There has never been a question of whether they are listening at all times, the question has only ever been if everything is being sent back to be processed by the borg, and as far as anyone has been able to tell the answer to that is no, not until the code word has been identified (or in this case, thought it had been identified).

        The question is, the word is supposed to be distinct enough that you're not going to accidentally trigger

        • The question is, the word is supposed to be distinct enough that you're not going to accidentally trigger it.

          The word is distinct (unless you have someone named Alexa in the house). Computer interpretation of sounds is not.

          What Amazon is insinuating is they use "Alexa" a lot in their conversation and thus end up triggering their devices "accidentally".

          Amazon is insinuating no such thing. It's right there in the summary with the words "sounding like". Computer vision and sound are often fooled by strange collections of sounds. Coincidentally enough I was at dinner with friends yesterday and in a conversation about cycling without any mention of Alexa (didn't know they had one) it decided to turn on and play some kind of children's tune, I thin

      • by chihowa ( 366380 )

        Here's an interesting technical article [apple.com] on how "Hey Siri" works. I'd assume that Google's equivalent or any of these that run on battery powered devices work similarly.

    • OK, so these deices ARE listening to everything at all times.

      I get really upset when people insist that the devices are NOT listening at all times, because it's blatantly obvious that they are. At the very least, people should be insisting that the devices do not continuously stream data back to the manufacturer (though it's difficult to tell whether even that's true or not).

      I remember when broadband modems first came out and were touting "always online" functionality. It scared the hell out of me, because I knew stuff like Echo/Home would be coming eventually. Gi

    • nah give it a week or two and everyone will forget.
    • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

      I am sure there are morons who don't understand, but I think most people realize that a spoken word cannot get Alexa's attention if Alexa isn't listening.

    • The most interesting thing is that people are willing to accept the crappy explanation they received. It now seems that most people are willing to sacrifice their privacy just so they can impress their friends by asking Alexa (or whoever) to order a pizza for them. It's pathetic.

      I will never voluntarily place one of these spy devices in my home.

    • by pnutjam ( 523990 )
      My theory, made up from whole cloth.

      This was a hidden feature intended for law enforcement or something like that. It was hidden in the firmware.
      A rogue employee turned the feature on in order to call attention to it.
  • by Carrot007 ( 37198 ) <.ku.oc.troperelbbiweht. .ta. .700torraC.> on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:53PM (#56679640) Homepage

    If only these devices had a button to stop them paying attention.

    Oh wait.

  • by blazerw ( 47739 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @04:54PM (#56679646)
    This is pretty sensationalist and, overall, poor summarizing. The actual story is nothing like the summary. Yes, the Alexa recorded the conversation and sent it. That is true, but the women's reaction of unplugging them all was immediate and NOT after Amazon's response. This summary portrays the order wrong to sensationalize. Also, the Google Mini issue was limited to very few devices and discovered before general release. The feature (bug) causing the issue was disabled before going on sale to the general public. Then permanently disabled when a fix was not possible. Seriously, the actual story is barely longer than the summary and much better. Do better.
  • The tap is not an active listener by default. You can make it one. I prefer not to.

    Also, that feature to send messages has to be set up by the user. Otherwise it will not know your contacts.

  • Sigh. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ledow ( 319597 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @05:02PM (#56679684) Homepage

    The fact that they know what happened to this level of detail means that it's always recording and they can go back to their records far enough, even days later.

    Turn this shit off.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      All interactions with Alexa are stored (anything you said after the activation word). You can even review that dialog history yourself and mark those interactions that you think Alexa handled poorly.

    • Re:Sigh. (Score:5, Informative)

      by mentil ( 1748130 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @05:37PM (#56679826)

      This isn't secret. You can actually go into the Alexa app and listen to voice clips of everything you've ever said to your Alexa devices. The clip even starts with the person saying 'Alexa' so there's a buffer which gets added to the recording once it detects you're addressing it. Sometimes you can even hear voice clips from other people talking to their own Alexa devices on other accounts, although customer support claims this is rare.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Apple keeps all the recordings for 2 years... imagine what Amazon does....

      • by Anonymous Coward
        Uses cow semen as lube when they fuck pigeons.
    • by tsa ( 15680 )

      Just don't buy this stuff. You don't need it.

    • Re:Sigh. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @05:59PM (#56679906)
      This is insightful?

      The fact that they know what happened to this level of detail means that it's always recording

      No, it doesn't. It means that it records command sessions so that the user can go back and hear what it was that triggered some event.

      and they can go back to their records far enough, even days later.

      So can the owner. I've heard what triggers Alexa to wake up because I can listen to the interaction using the app.

      Turn this shit off.

      If you are telling people to turn the device off entirely, well, if you don't want one don't buy one, and if you have one and suddenly realized that it is listening to what you say and you want to shut it off, then unplug it. Problem solved.

      If you are telling Amazon to stop keeping recordings of what interactions Alexa has with the owners, then get screwed. I want to know what caused mine to wake up when I have it on, and how it interpreted the commands. If you're never going to own one then why do you think you can tell others how it should work?

    • The fact that they know what happened to this level of detail means that it's always recording and they can go back to their records far enough, even days later.

      Turn this shit off.

      Err no. The fact that they know this means that the device does exactly what it says on the box, waits for a code word and then sends a search query to Amazon. It only misinterpreted the code word, or maybe someone actually mentioned Alexa and then didn't check to see if the little blue ring lit up.

  • I told you so (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kbg ( 241421 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @05:16PM (#56679738)

    I saw this scenario coming a mile away. When you use a constant listening device that can execute actions on your behalf with very poor AI then this will happen. Until the AI can rival human intelligence then this device can not be relied upon.

    • by mentil ( 1748130 )

      Obligatory VGCats [vgcats.com]

    • Actually had it happen today. Having a conversation about cycling in the living room and the guy's Alexa kicks in and starts playing music ... children's music like bananas in pyjamas stuff.

      It will get it wrong, it just depends if getting it wrong is innocuous or if it sends your dirty pics to your grandma.

    • Until the AI can rival human intelligence then this device can not be relied upon.

      Based on this and the conclusion you have reached I can only assume that you have never ... met humans.

  • If Alexa was truly decent at understanding spoken language, this wouldn't happen without the user giving specific commands. It goes to show, with current state of AI they are still just doing a lot of approximation and guessing.
  • By which I mean a microphone + small digital processor capable of assessing how close you are talking to the device listening. If you are not within - say - 5 feet of the device, the device would ignore and instantly discard all audio it hears. If you were within 4 feet on the other hand, it would listen for any voice commands to the device. Also, ALL voice recognition should happen ON the device, NOT in the cloud as cloud-crazy people like Satya Nadella might prefer it. One more fix would be a proximity se
  • I wonder if part of this is that Alexa is suffering from a problem that, for example, autistic people sometimes suffer. For people without such issues it seems so obviously easy that we do it without thinking, but consider the question: "how do you know when someone is talking to you?" Can you name a fixed set of criteria that are always reliable and don't return false positives? It's harder than you think, and I suspect one of the problems Alexa and her ilk are having is that they don't actually know what
  • by technomom ( 444378 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @05:45PM (#56679868)
    Their own voice recognition software is crap.
  • There is too much of ~then some noise in the background is interpreted as a command~ excuses to make it a plausible explanation for me.

    ...Danielle says she unplugged all the devices, and she repeatedly called Amazon. She says an Alexa engineer investigated. "They said 'our engineers went through your logs, and they saw exactly what you told us, they saw exactly what you said happened, and we're sorry.' ...

    ( https://www.kiro7.com/news/loc... [kiro7.com] ) I wonder what else is in those logs...

    • There is too much of ~then some noise in the background is interpreted as a command~ excuses to make it a plausible explanation for me.

      Do you own one, and have you ever listened to the recordings after it has done something it thought you told it to do? If not, then you have no idea what is plausible, because this scenario is exactly what several of us in the previous discussion predicted as the cause. It also shows that Alexa asked for information explicitly, and for a confirmation like a few people here said it should have done.

      They also claimed we know it did not ask, but now we all know different, don't we?

      • They also claimed we know it did not ask, but now we all know different, don't we?

        We know what an Amazon spokesperson said happened, implausible as it sounds. Seems to me if this thing was close enough to record their conversation it was close enough for them hear it ask for confirmation, but that doesn't seem to be addressed anywhere.

        • Seems to me if this thing was close enough to record their conversation it was close enough for them hear it ask for confirmation, but that doesn't seem to be addressed anywhere.

          It wasn't addressed because it only "seems to you". If the volume was turned down, or they just weren't expecting to hear anything asking them questions, then it seems quite plausible that they didn't hear it asking. I have radios on at the house all the time and unless I am actually paying attention it is quite easy to miss a radio call.

          In any case, it did ask, twice. It's documented. And no, it really isn't that implausible if you have any experience with anything like this.

    • There is too much of ~then some noise in the background is interpreted as a command~ excuses to make it a plausible explanation for me.

      Nobody said "some noise in the background". There was a conversation occurring. It wasn't noise, it was speech. The device is designed to recognize speech. Apparently, it's not fantastically good at the job; or even adequately. It should be able to detect when a keyword it's listening for is part of a stream of conversation, meaning it's not meant for Alexa. That should actually be an easier job than recognizing the words. In any case, the actual phrase used was "a word in background conversation", and your misrepresentation is utterly disingenuous.

    • There is too much of ~then some noise in the background is interpreted as a command~ excuses to make it a plausible explanation for me.

      Why? Only the first part needs to be mistaken, the device will then put a lot of effort into attempting to interpret the second part as a usable command.

      Had an Alexa come on during dinner today with some friends and play some children's music. The conversation was about cycling and I didn't even know he had an Alexa until the music came on.

  • Hilarity ensues..

    Alexa, don't shit on the rug!

    Alexa, whose a good girl?

  • Problem Solved (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pi_rules ( 123171 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @06:41PM (#56680048)

    Alexa: "To confirm you'd like to send this message repeat 5... 6... 8"
    User: "5... 6... 8"

    There. Pick 3 random positive integers for the send code each time.

    • You've raised a legit solution but to echo the rest of most people here, screw having those in the house in the darn first place!

  • Aaaachooo!

    Alexa: "Confirmed, you new Maserati is on its way..."

  • by manu0601 ( 2221348 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @08:02PM (#56680394)
    The fact they can come to some conclusions in this investigation suggests Amazon retains logs a lot of data about every Alexa installed. Do they have the full audio record? Just the commands?
  • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Saturday May 26, 2018 @09:53PM (#56680832) Journal

    I'm not going to hand out the smug, pointless "Told you so!" answer either.

    The real problem is that people buy these new technologies with unrealistic expectations. Then they get angry when it can't live up to them.

    I work in I.T. and I see examples, all the time, of technologies failing in totally unexpected ways. Even the best voice recognition systems I've ever used get my commands wrong at least 1 out of 4 times or so. That doesn't enthuse me about having an "always on" system trying to take commands properly when it's going to hear all sorts of random conversations all day long that don't involve it.

    • Even the best voice recognition systems I've ever used get my commands wrong at least 1 out of 4 times or so.

      Since you work in IT I want to clarify, are you talking about systems like Alexa or are you using "voice recognition systems" as a euphemism for users? :-) Jokes aside there's been a few people replying here saying that Alexa and similar systems won't be ready for prime time until they can manage these situations as well as humans. From that we can conclude that they should go out and talk to humans some more so they realise just how good these systems are and just how much humans (myself included) suck at

  • Did they never think that the might be used in a noisy environment. It has been suggested that the system was trying to confirm, but the volume was to low for the user to notice. May the system should automatically deactivate when the system volume is too low for proper functionality.
  • Suddenly google is recording everything and sending it to my gmail account. I did not *ask* for or desire this feature.

    I can't find a way to disable it.

  • Summary of article. (Score:2, Informative)

    by gurps_npc ( 621217 )

    1) Alexa did exactly what it was designed to do.
    2) It's speech recognition is a bit too sensitive
    3) The whole world got a wake up call about what these horrendous, evil, machines do.
    4) Most people still do not realize how stupid they are for installing clear and obviously ACTIVE espionage device into their home just to avoid having to push a button on their supposedly innactive espionage device that they carry with them all the time (cell phone).

  • Based on the description of the problem, the Echo gave multiple audible prompts. How did no one in the family even hear that and go WTF?

    If a foreign voice barged into my conversation with someone, that would immediately catch my attention. So something seems off about this story to me. Either the family's situational awareness is worse than that meme of the guy repeatedly getting barreled over by a bull, or they turned the volume down on the Echo to the point of inaudibility, which defeats the entire poi

  • I know seasoned security guys, some of them with beyond TS clearances and they think these things are great at home. I said - so you think it's a great idea that you have a microphone that you even paid for in all of your rooms and it's accessible to the Internet? Even when I put it that way they want to keep them. It's so handy, I can set a timer, reminders, get the weather, etc.

    These are guys that I wouldn't have thought were stupid.

    So I suppose NSA really isn't listening to them or they'd be called into

  • I guess if your kid is named Alexa you are in for lots of fun in the future.

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