Technology hurtles forward at a startling pace. If you’ve ever heard someone complain that they just replaced their cell phone only to discover that a new model came out the day after, you know the frustration and often confusion that accompanies rapid technological progress. One fairly recent trend in consumer technology is smart home systems. These devices can dim your lights, adjust your thermostat, and even play any song imaginable with simple vocal commands. As such gadgets become more common, so do weird smart home stories that will leave you wondering if you really want to bring such a device into your abode.
One of the most popular home systems is the Amazon Echo. Echo's AI assistant, Alexa, is well-known for her intuitive but often odd behavior. Creepy Alexa stories have become a staple of social media. While many customers rave about the convenience of having Alexa in their house, some have stories detailing her more eccentric moments that range from light and humorous to utterly chilling. Alexas have done some questionable things, but they're far from the only scary smart home tech out there. From hack-able baby monitors to devices that record you at random, you'll find some true horror stories below. Whether or not you own one of these devices, these tales will give you pause before you blindly plug yourself into the expansive Internet of things.
Study Finds That Smart Home Systems Can Hear Messages That We Can’t
As soon as we began inviting what is essentially AI into our homes, there was talk of the potential for widespread abuse. One study covered in the New York Times in May 2018 showed the alarming capabilities of Alexa. The article describes a study conducted by students from UC Berkeley and Georgetown University in which they discovered that they could hide commands in white noise or YouTube videos to get the device to do things like open a website or turn on airplane mode.
As the frequencies used to communicate these commands are outside of a human’s hearing range, commands could even be embedded into recordings of music or spoken text. While the devices themselves are not responsible for these hidden messages, the study does demonstrate how anyone with an unsavory agenda could exploit the accessibility of someone’s home system. One of the authors of the study stated, “My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do.”
High-Tech Baby Monitor Sings the Worst Lullabies Ever
In October of 2014, two Cincinnati, Ohio parents were startled to hear some unexpected sounds coming from the Internet-enabled baby monitor in their 10 month old daughter’s bedroom. They awoke at midnight to the sound of a man screaming and at one point even yelling, “Wake up, baby!” They discovered the voice was coming from the monitor itself.
Upon checking the monitor’s camera from a cell phone, they saw that it was moving independently. When the father ran into his daughter’s bedroom to check on her, the camera turned directly towards him and began yelling obscenities until he unplugged it from the wall.
Tech experts claimed that wireless IP cameras such as the one that the family used are fairly easy to hack into, leaving many consumers feeling unsafe and violated.
Alexa Sends a Family’s Private Conversation to a Contact 176 Miles Away
A May 2018 news article reported that a Portland family's Alexa recorded private conversations within their home. Then, without being asked or notifying the family, it sent these conversations to one of their contacts in Seattle. The contact who received the audio was an employee of a family member. After receiving the audio, she immediately contacted them and advised them to “unplug your Alexa devices right now.”
Upon being contacted about the incident, Amazon apologized profusely to the family and released a statement detailing what they believed took place, saying, "We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence.” Even so, the company refused to offer the family a refund for their devices.
Alexa Follows Commands That Her Owner Didn’t Give
There are many upsides to having a smart home system, like remote light and thermostat control, setting alarms, etc., but having such a device in your house can have some unsettling aspects as well. In a January, 2018, article for ZD Net, David Gewirtz describes the pros and cons of owning such a system. He doesn’t just limit his analysis to positives and negatives, however; he also includes a “creepy” section to detail the device’s more questionable talents.
He claims that his Alexa system would start speaking without the prompting of a wake word. This not only gave him pause because of the lifelike behavior, but because such behavior implies that Alexa is always listening, even when you wish she wasn’t. In the article, Gewirtz reflected:
We’re a society fully aware of the potential of Big Brother, and the idea that these devices can always listen or record what we're saying will never fully go away, whether that fear is real.