In late 2014 that Amazon released its first Echo, and just a few years later about one in every four adults in the US owns a smart speaker today. That's over 60 million smart speakers in just under six years, which is crazy.
There's a clear reason why people love smart speakers. With a simple voice command, they give you the ability to play music, learn about the weather, set timers or reminders, and control the other smart devices in your home. No need to touch your smartphone or open your laptop. Of course, the nature of a smart speaker also comes with a bit of downside, and that's that it poses a serious question about your privacy.
In order to work properly, a smart speaker needs to listen for its wake word — which is "Alexa" for Amazon, "Hey Siri" for Apple, and "Hey Google" for Google — so that when it hears it, it can spring into action. However, this requires the speaker to be always on and always be listening, meaning it could potentially hear things that you or other people in your household want to keep private.
There have been numerous cases (and lawsuits) over the last few years of smart speakers hearing things that they weren't supposed to, and subsequently Amazon, Apple and Google have added features to plug up some of these privacy holes. However, according to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 54 percent of smart speaker owners say they're still concerned about the amount of personal data their speakers collect. Especially considering that most people place their smart speaker in a sensitive location, like a bedroom or living room.
Here are three things you can do to take some power back into your own hands.
Know how to turn off the mics.
The best sure-fire way to prevent your smart speaker from listening to you is to simply turn off its microphones, and it's a good idea to learn how to do it. Most smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home, have a physical button that you can press to turn on/off its microphones.
The Amazon Echo's mute button is located on the top of the speaker. When the mics are disabled, the LED ring on the mute button with glow red.
The Google Home's mute button is located on the back of the speaker. When the mics are disabled, four amber lights will appear on the top of your Google Home speaker.
The Apple HomePod is the big outlier here as it doesn't actually have a physical button to turn off its microphones. To disable it, you have two options: go through the Home app on your iPhone or iPad, or simply tell Siri: "Hey Siri, stop listening."
Delete your recording history.
Many smart speakers will keep a log of your queries by default. The good news is that it's pretty easy to delete these recordings. You can simply ask the smart speaker to delete what you've recently said — such as, "Alexa, delete everything I said today" or "Hey Google, delete my last conversation." Additionally, you can set up your smart speaker speaker so that it deletes these recordings automatically.
If you have an Alexa-enabled speaker, here's what to do:
- Open the Alexa app.
- Go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage Your Alexa Data.
- Select "Manage your voice recordings" and then choose "Automatically delete recordings." You have to option to delete you recordings after three or 18 months, or not at all.
If you have an Google Assistant-enabled speaker, here's what to do:
- Open the Google Home app.
- Tap your picture icon in the top-right corner and select "My Activity."
- Select the tab that says "Auto-Delete." You have to option to delete you recordings after three or 18 months, or not at all.
- (You can also go to MyActivity.Google.com and sign into your Google account, and follow steps 1 - 3.)
If you have a HomePod, here's what to do:
- Open the Home app and select "HomePod Settings."
- Select "Siri History" > "Delete Siri History"
- (Apple does not give you an option to set up a schedule to delete recordings, however it will automatically delete all Siri recordings after six months. Click here for more information.)
Audit its access to other apps.
The HomePod is different than other smart speakers because it has a more personal relationship with your iPhone. For example, you can ask Siri on your HomePod to send iMessages, call people or even listen to your voicemails. The problem with this is that anybody in your home can potentially access your private information with a simple "Hey Siri" voice command. Fortunately, Apple has a pretty easy fix for this: turn off personal notifications anytime you have guests over.
- Open the Home app and select the arrow icon in the top-left corner.
- Select your profile picture in the "People" section.
- Make sure that the switch for "Personal Requests" is turned off.
The Amazon Echo and Google Home both have calling and messaging features, but they're tied to their companion app rather than your entire smartphone. For example, if you have an Amazon Echo you can make calls or send messages directly through the Alexa app. You can also ask Alexa to call somebody's mobile and landline numbers. A Google Home speaker can call mobile and landline numbers, too, but unlike the Echo it isn't able to call Google Home speakers that are outside your home. Both the Google Home and Amazon Echo don't have access to non-Google or non-Amazon messaging services, like your text messages or iMessages, so they're a little more secure in that respect.
Alexa and Google Home do have the ability to interact with third-party apps if you've given them the permission, and it is always a good idea to do an audit.
For an Alexa speaker:
- Open the Alexa app.
- Find Skills & Games on the sidebar.
- "Your Skills."
- Disable any skills you no longer use.
For a Google Home device:
- Open the Google Home app.
- Go to "More Settings" > "Services.
- Disable any services you no longer want or use.