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“Alexa, what time is it?” “Alexa, do I need an umbrella today?” “Alexa, call my phone.” “Alexa, when will my package arrive?” Alexa responds to the requests of millions of users every day.
Given voice assistants’ popularity, many users have questions about how they actually work: How do smart speakers, for example, detect the wake word? Do they detect speech when we don’t explicitly interact with them? And how can we manage the recordings they produce to interpret our requests?
Amazon says that Alexa and Echo devices are built with privacy in mind and provides many layers of privacy control.
Privacy preferences are personal and it's important to learn about available settings so that you can determine what's right for you.
We start with the small but powerful Echo device, the Echo Dot.
Echo Dot’s Built-In Privacy Features
The Echo Dot, like all Alexa-enabled devices, only sends your voice request to the cloud after first detecting a wake word. The device encrypts your requests in transit to Amazon’s secure cloud, where Alexa processes them. The light indicator on the device turns blue to show when it’s sending requests to the cloud.
By default, the wake word is “Alexa.”
If there are times when you’d prefer that your Echo device not detect the wake word at all, you can press the microphone off button on the top. The indicator light ring will turn red to let you know that you have electronically disconnected the microphones. Music and other audio can continue to play when you press the microphone off button, but the microphone itself stops functioning and no new audio will be detected by the device whether you speak the wake word or not. Pressing the microphone off button will not impact previously scheduled requests, such as alarms.
Echo Show’s Built-In Privacy Features
The Echo Show adds a visual dimension to Alexa. A camera lets you make video calls and a screen shows the weather, the time, displays recipes, video content, and more. The microphone off button on the Echo Show not only disconnects the microphones, but the camera as well.
The light indicator on the Echo Show is located at the bottom of the display. It shows you when the microphones and camera are off, when the device has detected the wake word, and when it’s sending your instructions to Amazon’s secure cloud.
Not planning to use the camera? This device adds a physical shutter that you can slide over the camera lens.
Managing Your Privacy via the Alexa App
Privacy settings are available on Echo Show devices, through Alexa Privacy Settings, and through the Amazon Alexa app on your smartphone.
To access them, open the app, click More at the bottom right of the screen, then select “Settings” and, from the Settings menu, select Alexa Privacy. From there, among other functions, you can view, hear, and delete your recordings of your voice requests. If you would like to set your privacy controls, you can manage your privacy settings by tapping on “Manage Your Alexa Data.”
Recent reports indicate that most consumers are happy with their voice assistants and are planning to use smart speakers more in the future. Becoming familiar with all of the privacy features available, such as those designed into Alexa, ensures that you can mindfully take advantage of the convenience that these devices have to offer.