TV News anchor says ‘Alexa, buy me a dollhouse’ with predictable results…

Graham Cluley

TV News anchor says 'Alexa, buy me a dollhouse' with predictable results...

TV News anchor says 'Alexa, buy me a dollhouse' with predictable results...

Call me a luddite if you like, but the idea of having a company like Amazon always listening to what’s being said in my house gives me the creeps.

And, as this TV news report makes all too clear, Amazon’s voice-activated assistant Alexa – which powers the likes of the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot – has a problem.

It can’t tell the difference between you ordering a product, or your toddler, or (gulp!) someone speaking on the TV or radio.

Yup. Jim Patton, a TV news anchor on San Diego’s CW-6, was bantering about a media report of a young girl ordering a dollhouse, and – lo-and-behold – viewers’ homes across the region reported that their Alexa devices had then attempted to make similar purchases.

If you’re one of those who has surrendered to the seemingly inevitable intrusion into our private lives that Amazon’s Alexa (and similar gadgets) brings, then please consider disabling voice purchasing or enabling a four digit confirmation code to prevent accidental purchases.

Amazon, of course, enables voice purchases by default. That’s in their interest. They want to sell lots of dollhouses (and more besides).

To change the settings to something more sensible:

  • Open the Alexa app.
  • Open the left navigation panel, and then select Settings > Voice Purchasing.
  • Select appropriate settings (such as disabling voice purchases or enabling the confirmation code).

It goes without saying that Alexa can do a fair bit more than make purchases from the Amazon store, and there is the potential for mischief makers to abuse the system in other ways if it can’t tell the difference between the voices of authorised and unauthorised users.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Update: An Amazon spokesperson has been in touch with the following statement:

“You must ask Alexa to order a product and then confirm the purchase with a “yes” response to purchase via voice. If you asked Alexa to order something on accident, simply say “no” when asked to confirm. You can also manage your shopping settings in the Alexa app, such as turning off voice purchasing or requiring a confirmation code before every order. To learn more, go to Manage Voice Purchasing Settings. Additionally, orders you place for physical products are eligible for free returns.”

Graham Cluley Graham Cluley is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s when he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and is an international public speaker on the topic of computer security, hackers, and online privacy. Follow him on Twitter at @gcluley, or drop him an email.

8 Replies to “TV News anchor says ‘Alexa, buy me a dollhouse’ with predictable results…”

  1. what a load of old rubbish. I have one echo and one dot and neither had voice purchasing enabled by default

    1. That may have been your experience, however it's different from what Amazon itself describes at https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201952610 :

      "Note: After you register your Alexa device, voice purchasing is on by default."

  2. "… please consider disabling voice purchasing or enabling a four digit confirmation code to prevent accidental purchases …"

    So only half the audience will get affected depending on whether the presenter says "Alexa order me a dollhouse … zero zero zero zero" or " … one two three four" :)

  3. Also, if you'allow the Echo or Dot to control your smart home door locks, at least move it far enough from a window or audible answering machine so a thief outside cannot gain verbal access and order Alexa to unlock your doors.

    Since I use my Echo just a few hours a day for timers, music, audio books, news and such, I have mine on a manual power switch. When I am not actively using it, it's switched off at the power source.

  4. It's important to clarify that all voice purchases still require a confirmation. Once Alexa hears your request, she says "The ABC Dollhouse is 123 dollars. Would you like me to order that for you?" If one do not say "Yes" within about 5 seconds the request is dismissed. So — that may not protect you from kids/guests, but it's not very likely your TV is actually going to order anything.

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