Alexa, stop listening: Protecting your privacy from a voice assistant

  • TECH
  • Sunday, 21 Jul 2019

By hitting a button on your Echo smart speaker, you can determine whether Alexa may listen. — dpa

Voice assistants are certainly useful in the home, but what happens when someone visits who'd prefer not to be recorded? There are a few ways to protect your privacy when it comes to Alexa and the others.

Voice assistants such as Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant help make everyday living more convenient. They work by listening for trigger words that activate them. But what if you have a visitor who doesn't want their voice to be recorded?

To be on the safe side, users should inform visitors that they have a digital voice assistant and should turn it off if necessary, advises Germany's consumer federation, the vzbv.

Many smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home have on/off switches. It's worth turning them off not only when you have visitors, but also if you don't intend to use them for a while.

Users can also improve transparency and control by changing the signal word that triggers the voice assistant to start recording. In the Alexa app, you'll find this under Sound Settings, in the Google Home app under Accessibility.

In the case of Google Assistant, the default activation words are "Hey Google" and "OK Google," while with the Amazon device, they're "Alexa", "Amazon," "Echo" or "Computer."

However, in a test, the vzbv found that words that sound similar to the activation words can also trigger recordings. Think carefully about the activation word, the consumer advocates warn. For example, don't use "Alexa" if you have an Alex or Alexandra in the household.

"Computer" is also too common a word and risks the unwanted recording of everyday conversations, which can then be transmitted to Google or Amazon's servers, the vzbv warns.

If you want to delete the recordings on a regular basis for privacy reasons, you can do so in your Amazon account under "Voice Recording History" or in your Google account under "My Activities > Language & Audio."

Alexa users who don't want their voice to be analysed to increase the accuracy of Alexa's word detection can choose this setting in their account's privacy settings.

There's no basic way to lock Alexa so that children can't retrieve inappropriate content. However, if you use Alexa to shop on Amazon, you can set up a code to prevent unauthorised purchases.

Google Assistant, on the other hand, allows users to set filters to block certain content. This feature can be found in the Google Home app under Digital Wellbeing. – dpa
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