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In-Home Virtual Assistants sprang onto the market with the Amazon Echo. Since then around 5.1 million units have already been sold. If this past Christmas is any indicator, it doesn’t seem as if this trend will be slowing anytime soon
But with millions of people bringing either the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot into their homes and connecting them to their private Wi-Fi networks, there is serious cause for concern.
What owners of these virtual assistants might not realize is that these kinds of home appliances are always listening, and recording everything they hear.
Yes, because it’s the listening and translating algorithms that allow the Echo to understand comments or commands. That means, if you’re not careful, they could be a privacy nightmare.
How does the Amazon Echo work?
Before covering the privacy aspect of the Amazon Echo, here’s a simple overview of what it is and what it does.
There are two versions of the Amazon Echo to choose from: the standard Echo, which costs $180, and the Echo Dot, which costs $5o.
Both of these products have a built-in feature called “Alexa” that operates much like Siri does on your iPhone, or Cortana does for Windows.
Alexa is activated when it detects one of its wake words, which are “Alexa,” “Amazon,” or “Echo.” You’ll know that the device is ready for a command when the outer ring at the top glows blue.
When activated, Alexa allows you to search the web, play music, and even control other smart home devices you’ve added to your home network. For example, with the right smart gadgets you can turn off the lights in another room, lock the front door, turn up the thermostat, etc.
That’s where the problem begins. Because the virtual assistant has a human name people tend to humanize what it does. We need to remember that it’s only a device, not a person.
Even worse is that Amazon keeps an audio recording of every voice command you’ve issued to Alexa. When you give a command to Alexa, a recording of that command is stored on Amazon’s servers.
A Murder Case involving Echo
Police in Arkansas want to know if an owner’s Echo overheard something that can help with a murder case. According to The Information, authorities in Bentonville issued a warrant for Amazon to hand over any audio or records from an Echo belonging to James Andrew Bates. Bates is set to go to trial for first-degree murder for the death of Victor Collins next year.
Due to the so-called always on nature of the connected device, the authorities are after any audio the speaker may have picked up that night of the murder. Sure, the Echo is activated by certain words, but it’s not uncommon for the IoT gadget to be alerted to listen by accident. Simply say a word that’s ‘similar’ to an activation word and Alexa will respond.
“You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us,” defense attorney Kimberly Weber said. However, an audio recording would seemingly be a solid piece of evidence, if released.
How to control Echo recordings
So, in the same way you wouldn’t feel comfortable letting someone go through your Google search history, you probably don’t want others poking through your recent Alexa requests. That’s why you need to know how to delete recordings captured by these always-listening virtual assistants.
And based on the way these virtual assistants work, it’s safe to assume they record all the time and store recordings locally. So, to be on the safe side, it’s a good idea to review Alexa’s command history regularly, and clear out any recordings that don’t need to be there.
Many people don’t realize you can actually review your voice log with the Alexa app on iOS and Android. The app allows you to scroll through your activity and listen to each recording.
If you’d like to play an old entry, pull up the Alexa app and visit the History section within the settings. Tap on the entry you’d like to review in greater detail and tap the Play icon to listen to the recording.
You can, of course, delete a recording by removing the associated entry on the Alexa app. You’ll find this option again in the History section of the app’s Settings. Select an entry, then tap the Delete button.
Muting the microphone
For privacy, you can also mute the microphone on the Amazon Echo by pressing a physical button.
To turn the Echo’s mic off, press the microphone off/on button on the top of the device. Whenever this button is red, the mic is off. To reactivate it, just press the button again.
Muting the mics will stop the Echo from listening; however, disabling the mics will also defeat the point of these virtual assistants. The always-on, always-listening nature of these smart virtual assistant speakers is what makes them truly compelling gadgets to have.
Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!
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