How to make sure your Amazon Echo doesn't send secret recordings

Amazon Alexa Device

Officials say there are some measures smart speaker fans can take to protect their privacy.

Posted: May 27, 2018 9:29 AM
Updated: May 29, 2018 12:53 PM

(CNN Money) -- It was Alexa's equivalent of a pocket dial.

A woman in Portland, Oregon, claimed her Amazon Echo smart-speaker secretly recorded a private conversation, then sent the audio file to an acquaintance. She told her story to a local news outlet and it spread, stoking fears about always listening devices invading privacy.

Amazon confirmed the incident and claimed it was caused by an extremely rare series of events. The Echo misheard four different commands causing it to turn on, record a voice message, and send it to a contact.

While that family says they will no longer use Echo devices, there are some less extreme measures that smart speaker fans can take to protect their privacy.

Turn off calling and messaging features
It sounds like a simple solution: turn off any features that can accidentally record and share audio. Unfortunately, there is no option to turn off voice messaging in the current Alexa app. You have to talk to Amazon customer service on the phone to turn of messaging.

You can call Amazon at (888) 280-4331, or open the Alexa app and go to Help & Feedback and have Amazon customer service call you.

Amazon tells us this is the recommended way to turn of messaging features or delete contacts, but it is working on a way to control these settings inside the app.

Don't give Alexa your contact list
When you first set up an Alexa device on a smartphone, you give the app permission to access the contacts saved on your phone. If you are a new Echo user, you can skip this step and deny it permission. However, once you do give it permission, it uploads your contacts to its servers. Even if you revoke access in the phone's settings, or delete the app completely, Alexa will continue to have all the phone numbers and email addresses it already saved from you address book. The only way to remove them is by calling customer service. You can, however, mute individual contacts in the app.

Pump up the volume or hit the mute button
If the volume on an Echo or similar device is turned all the way down, you may not hear it asking for prompts like the name of a contact. Especially if its excellent microphones pick up your voice in a different room.

Related: How an Alexa speaker recorded and shared a private conversation

Echo speakers have seven microphones that are always listening for Alexa's "wake" word. The devices only record and upload audio once they hear that word, but as this case illustrates, sometimes it can be triggered by mistake.

When you want to be extra sure a smart speaker isn't listening, mute it. The Echo and Google Home have physical mute buttons, and Apple's HomePod has a mute voice command ("Hey Siri, stop listening"). The light ring on the top of an Echo turns red when it is muted.

Avoid saying words that sound like "Alexa"
The recent secret recoding incident began when an Echo misheard something that sounded like "Alexa," its trigger word. According to the Rhyming Dictionary there aren't many exact rhymes for Alexa, but you should avoid dropping adnexa, annexa, celexa, lenexa, or reflexa into casual conversations.

If someone in your house is actually named Alexa or something similar, you can change the Echo's trigger word to Echo, Amazon or Computer.

Live like everyone's watching
While people are wringing their hands over the Echo, it's not the only potential privacy risk in your home. There are other smart speakers using always-on microphones, like Google Home and Microsoft's Cortana devices.

Smartphones can also be set to an always listening mode, including iPhones and Google's Pixel devices. Devices without microphones can collect private data too. Connected cameras like Ring doorbells and Nest Cams, sensors that track movement, and even something like a "smart" fridge can all collect information about you that you'd rather keep secret.

You can unplug them all until you are confident in the tech industries privacy protections, or you can go about your daily life avoiding doing or saying anything embarrassing (or illegal).

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Terre Haute
Broken Clouds
74° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 74°
Robinson
Broken Clouds
72° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 72°
Indianapolis
Broken Clouds
78° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 80°
Rockville
Overcast
71° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 71°
Casey
Broken Clouds
71° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 71°
Brazil
Broken Clouds
74° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 74°
Marshall
Broken Clouds
74° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 74°
Storms Possible
WTHI Planner
WTHI Temps
WTHI Radar

WTHI Events

 

Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Confirmed Cases: 151572

Reported Deaths: 7329
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Cook940054676
Lake10175427
DuPage9502483
Kane7971281
Will7120322
Winnebago3143101
McHenry2208100
St. Clair2128144
Kankakee134465
Unassigned1170210
Rock Island110730
Madison109570
Kendall102423
Champaign101017
Boone62921
Peoria60929
DeKalb60220
Sangamon49333
Jackson34519
McLean30115
Randolph2927
Ogle2834
Stephenson2826
Clinton24417
Macon24222
LaSalle23917
Whiteside20315
Union19619
Coles18817
Grundy1875
Iroquois1705
Tazewell1648
Knox1520
Monroe14713
Warren1470
Adams1421
Williamson1394
Cass1367
Morgan1323
Jefferson11317
Lee1042
Henry1031
McDonough10315
Vermilion852
Pulaski790
Marion770
Montgomery641
Macoupin623
Perry601
Douglas550
Livingston542
Jo Daviess491
Christian484
Jasper477
Ford421
Woodford412
Franklin400
Jersey381
Bureau312
Menard280
Mercer280
Washington250
Cumberland240
Fayette233
Johnson230
Mason230
Wabash230
Alexander220
Carroll212
Clark210
Piatt210
Effingham201
Shelby201
Bond191
Hancock191
Moultrie190
Crawford180
Logan180
De Witt160
Edgar160
Fulton160
Massac150
Wayne151
Schuyler130
Marshall120
Saline110
Brown100
Greene80
Henderson80
Lawrence80
Richland80
White80
Hamilton70
Stark60
Pike50
Gallatin40
Clay20
Edwards20
Calhoun10
Hardin10
Out of IL11
Pope10
Putnam10
Scott10

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Confirmed Cases: 49575

Reported Deaths: 2739
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11812690
Lake5337247
Elkhart343257
Allen2867133
St. Joseph202569
Cass16439
Hamilton1629101
Hendricks1439100
Johnson1306118
Porter78038
Tippecanoe7439
Clark67144
Madison66864
Vanderburgh6296
LaPorte59727
Bartholomew59245
Howard58258
Kosciusko5654
Marshall5217
Noble49128
LaGrange4829
Jackson4773
Delaware46052
Boone45944
Hancock45736
Shelby43425
Floyd39144
Morgan32831
Monroe31528
Grant30226
Montgomery29720
Henry29316
Dubois2906
Clinton2882
White26810
Decatur25532
Lawrence25125
Dearborn24723
Vigo2408
Warrick23229
Harrison21722
Greene19132
Miami1892
Jennings17912
Putnam1708
DeKalb1634
Scott1628
Daviess15017
Wayne1496
Perry1409
Orange13623
Steuben1332
Franklin1278
Jasper1252
Ripley1247
Wabash1152
Carroll1122
Fayette1037
Gibson1032
Newton9910
Whitley995
Starke963
Huntington822
Randolph804
Wells791
Jefferson782
Fulton731
Jay680
Washington671
Pulaski661
Knox650
Clay644
Rush603
Owen511
Adams491
Posey490
Benton480
Spencer461
Sullivan451
Brown421
Blackford392
Fountain332
Crawford320
Tipton311
Switzerland280
Parke240
Martin220
Ohio210
Vermillion170
Warren151
Union130
Pike110
Unassigned0193