Smart Home

8 ways to protect your privacy from Alexa

If you own an Echo or Alexa speaker, you'll want to adjust these settings.

Amazon Echo Plus smart speaker actively listening with blue indicator light illuminated Credit: Amazon

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Tech for the home has come to be synonymous with smart home and, by extension, integration with voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and Bixby. There’s an ever-expanding catalog of devices that work with Amazon Echo and Alexa in particular, to the extent that she’s almost impossible to avoid.

But Echo raised some privacy concerns in 2018 when a speaker accidentally recorded a family’s private conversation and sent it to their colleague after mistakenly hearing elements of the conversation as voice commands. Alexa has also misheard some common words, creepily triggering its laugh at strange times. While it may seem a foregone conclusion that inviting Alexa into your home is inviting an invasion of privacy, there are several settings you can adjust on your favorite Echo speaker to lower the risk.

1. Make Alexa stop listening

Muted Amazon Echo
Credit: Amazon

A red light ring means the Echo's microphones are turned off, and Alexa can't hear your conversations.

Stop your speakers from listening for (and possibly mishearing) your wake word by turning off your mic via the mute button on the top of the device. You can also turn off the camera. While earlier Echo models allow you to disable it with the push of a button, newer versions also have privacy shutters that cover the lens when it’s not being used. On the Echo Show and the Show 5 you can turn both the camera and mics off with the “off” button on top. The LED light turns red to give you visual confirmation that the microphone and camera are not active.

2. Change your wake word

If you find your Echo speaker often thinks you’ve said “Alexa” when you haven’t, hop into your settings and change the speaker’s “wake word.” The wake word is what the speaker listens for as its cue that you’re giving it a command, like “OK Google” and “Hey Siri” on other smart devices. Alexa can wake to the words “computer,” “Amazon,” or “echo” instead of her name, which is invaluable when, say, you’re watching Schitt’s creek in the same room (Alexis!).

The wake word is what the speaker listens for as its cue that you’re giving it a command.

To change the wake word, open the Alexa app on your mobile device, find your speaker in Devices and select your new wake word. Give your speaker a few minutes to update.

Here's how: Alexa app > Devices > Echo & Alexa > [Your Echo Device] > Wake Word (under General) > [New wake word]

3. Know for sure when Alexa is listening

When an Echo speaker has heard the wake word and starts listening, you’ll see the light ring on top turn blue (or you’ll see a blue stripe of color pulse along the bottom of the screen in the case of smart displays like the Show). But if the speaker isn’t in your field of vision, you might not realize when it’s listening unless you enable an audible alert.
With sounds enabled, you’ll get both visible and audible notifications when your speaker is listening for a command.

Here's how: Alexa app > General > Sounds > Request Sounds > Enable "Start of Request" and "End of Request"

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4. Prevent unauthorized purchases

In 2017, Alexa purchased a dollhouse for a 6-year-old child who asked for one, as well as for viewers of a local morning show when their Alexa devices heard the command coming from the TV. You can toggle “Purchase by Voice” off in the Alexa app under the Voice Purchasing setting. Or, set up a PIN code to avoid unauthorized purchases.

Here's how: Alexa app > Settings > Account Settings > Voice Purchasing > Disable "Purchase by voice"

5. Stop Amazon from listening to your recordings

Amazon Echo 3 listening
Credit: Amazon

You can tell Alexa is listening when the blue light ring is pulsing on the top of the Echo and Echo Dot.

In 2019, Bloomberg reported that Amazon employs workers to manually review voice recordings. You can opt out of having your voice recordings included in the review process in the Alexa app's settings. In these privacy settings, you can also delete voice recordings, which are accessible to anyone you share the app with. You can even set up auto deletion every three or 18 months.

Here's how: Alexa app > Settings > Manage your Alexa data > Automatically delete recordings

6. Keep people from spying on you

Alexa’s Drop In feature lets other Echos automatically connect to another Echo to start a conversation, like an intercom system. You can turn this on or off, set it to just work between devices in your household, and even select specific contacts who are allowed to drop in anytime in the Conversations tab on the Alexa app. To see who’s already on your list, go to the Contacts Menu and check Others Who Can Drop In on my Devices. Tap Remove to revoke the contact's Drop In permissions.

Here's how: Alexa app > Communicate > Contacts (outline of a person in upper right-hand corner) > [Your Name] My Communications Settings > Disable "Allow Drop In"

7. Delete old voice recordings

You can also enable a setting to delete your last voice request or all voice recordings for the day by reviewing your voice history in the Alexa app or in your browser. In the Alexa app, also go to Alexa Account > Alexa Privacy and tap Manage how your data improves Alexa. Turn off Help Develop New Features and Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions. To delete your Alexa history, go to Settings > History in the Alexa app to delete entries one by one. To delete en masse, go to Alexa Privacy Settings on Amazon’s website and select Review Voice History. Make sure to delete recordings for each default marketplace you’ve used.

Here's how: Alexa app > Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History

8. Cover the camera

Echo Show camera shutter switch
Credit: Amazon

The toggle on the top of the Echo Show physically covers the camera lens and turns the microphones off.

Not everyone feels comfortable having a video camera in their home that can turn on when activated. If you have an Echo device with a camera, you can turn off the camera by pushing the microphone/camera off button or slider on top of the device. This disconnects both the mics and camera.

The Echo Show has an additional built-in camera shutter, a useful feature for those who might want visual assurance of privacy from a nightstand clock replacement pointed at their bed.

Using smart devices is a calculated risk that significantly increases your vulnerability.
While nothing is foolproof, it’s important to know what’s happening with your data and what the different options and settings are so you can make informed decisions.

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