Big Sister Is Listening – Here's How to Stop Her

First, we warned you about your smartphone...

Then, it was your television...

Now, we're warning you about sacrificing your privacy for the sake of a popular Christmas gift.

Popular media outlets like USA Today, Business Insider, and the Today Show all rank this as one of the hottest gifts of the 2019 season. Chances are you've already purchased one (or more) for yourself or your family. But it's also an intrusive visitor...

I'm talking about Amazon's popular Echo products. The smart speaker has a user interface named Alexa. You can use your voice to ask Alexa to do everything – you can have her play "Jingle Bells," order pizza, remind you to pick up your dry cleaning, even update you on a stock's performance.

I know a few people who got sucked in with Amazon's latest offer to get the Dot – a mini version – for just $0.99 (after paying for at least one month of Amazon Music Unlimited for an additional $9.99).

That's a fantastic deal, but before you hook up any of the Echo products (the original, the Dot, the Echo Show, the Auto, and more), there's something you should keep in mind: Alexa is always listening.

Your Echo device doesn't have the power to compute what you're asking right there. It has to transcribe what you ask, send it to the server in the cloud, and then relay a response. But because everyone is so different, Alexa has to "learn" speech patterns and questions. So, snips of your conversations – even ones you didn't know Alexa was recording – are sent to a team at Amazon to analyze.

And there's no way to make it anonymous.

That's why I want to urge you to use caution before setting up these devices.

I know that it might sound like I'm pounding the table on this issue. But the truth is that with the explosion of the Internet of Things, everything around us is connected... and recording. Privacy these days is a myth.

You can't control everything around you, but we want you to be aware of what you can control. So, we've put together three main points for smart speaker privacy. We're going to focus on Amazon due to the popularity, but these tips apply to all of these kinds of products, including Google Home, Sonos One, Apple HomePod and others.

1. Delete your voice logs. Just like with your smartphone, you need to make sure you're taking care of your voice logs. Your smart speaker doesn't "listen" – it records and then processes your request. But those recordings don't just disappear. You need to delete them yourself.

This is particularly important since Amazon says Echo products can have three false starts a day. In other words, it can turn on and "listen" even if you don't say the wake-up command – and it can do that up to three times a day. That means sensitive conversations may be recorded and sent to the Amazon cloud.

You'll need to go to the Alexa app. In there is a "Privacy" screen. From here you can access your voice history, can listen to recordings, and delete the ones you want... or simply delete them all (which is what we recommend).

2. Check skill permissions. Alexa's functions are called "skills." You'll want to see what permissions you're granting for each one. For instance, you might have your street address shared because you have an Uber skill on there.

You'll need to figure out how much you want shared and with which skills. That includes your address, phone number, and e-mail address.

3. Be wary of third-party skills. Amazon does have requirements for any developers who create programs that people can download as skills on their devices. But each one has different rules for what data they collect and what they can do with it.

It might seem boring but take a few minutes to review those privacy policies to understand what's at stake. If that isn't enough, know this: Some third-party skill developers add malware that will keep listening to and keep recording your conversations – and will send them back to the developers. They may even create "phishing" attempts, asking you to say your password or enter other information that hackers can then use to access your accounts.

So be sure any third-party skill you download is from a reputable source that you recognize and has excellent reviews.

In addition to these three tips, we urge you to follow our common-sense rules for all Internet privacy, including securing your Internet connection. You can read more on these tips in my issue about smart TVs, here.

Finally, consider one last, easy step – simply turn off the microphone. If you aren't using the device, simply hit the microphone button on top. If it's red, it's off and won't record or respond to you.

We agree these devices are useful, but don't get carried away to the point of being careless. Review these steps and share them with friends and family this season.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
December 19, 2019