You’ve bought an Amazon Echo. Maybe a Dot, a Tap, or a Look… or one of the other versions that come with a working microphone, possibly a camera, and definitely Alexa. These devices can make your life easier in so many ways: listening to music and podcasts, checking the weather and latest news, and even ordering from Amazon.
But you’re getting itchy feet. There’s a device in your home with an always-on microphone. Is your Amazon Echo as private as you would like it to be?
We’ve already looked at some of the privacy concerns surrounding Amazon Echo devices and the regular use of Alexa. But can any of these risks be avoided? Here are six ways to improve your privacy when using an Amazon Echo.
1. Block Incoming Calls
Adding phone calls to the Echo’s abilities was a great move by Amazon, but it can all be a bit inconvenient. While it requires you to manually set up (and give permission to your contacts via the Amazon Alexa mobile app), it can all prove a bit uncomfortable.
Worst of all, do you want a call to interrupt whatever you’re currently doing with Alexa (perhaps listening to Amazon Music)? Unless it’s absolutely urgent (in which case, you have a smartphone), Alexa-to-Alexa calling is pretty pointless.
While this only works if the caller also has an Echo, you might feel more comfortable disabling the feature. The Do Not Disturb mode is the easiest option here, which can be activated by uttering “Alexa, don’t disturb me.” When you’re ready for calls, undo the command with “Alexa, turn off Do Not Disturb.”
Alternatively, you can disable calls from within the app (Android is shown, but the steps are the same on iOS), using Settings > [Your Amazon Echo] > Do Not Disturb. This is actually a useful menu to check, as it also features the option to schedule when calls come in.
So, to avoid being woken up by call notifications on every Echo device you own in the middle of the night (perhaps when your phone is in silent mode) use the Scheduled toggle. Once enabled, set a time range where you’re happy to receive notifications.
2. Drop the “Drop-In”
June 2018 saw the introduction of “Drop In,” a new feature that extends basic calling to face-to-face calls between users with an Amazon Show. These devices don’t have to be on the same network; they can be owned by different people, in different locations.
Anyone from your contacts list with an Amazon Echo Show can call you with Drop In and see what’s going on at your end, unannounced. No Echo Show? They can still hear.
It’s vital that you check your Echo Drop In settings. In the app, open Settings, select your Echo device, and then scroll down to Drop In. Tap this, and choose your preferred option from On, Only My Household and Off.
If you have multiple Amazon Echo devices, the second option could prove useful for inter-home communication. Otherwise, we’d recommend switching this feature off.
As with making calls, you can allow individual contacts to use Drop In. Use the Conversations tab, tap the Contact icon, and review the list of people with an Echo linked to their phone number. This is where you’ll see whether these individuals have the ability to make a call via Drop In.
It’s best if you ensure that none of these contacts has the Contact can Drop In anytime setting set to On. Block this via the Others Who Can Drop In on my Devices list, and tap Remove against each contact.
Block Individual Callers
It’s also possible to block calls from particular people. Open the app, find the Conversations tab, and tap the Contacts icon. Tap Block Contacts, then in the list that appears, tap the contacts you wish to block.
Finally, don’t forget that you can also disable Alexa’s access to your contacts by revoking this permission on your phone.
3. Disable the Echo Show (or Look) Camera
Currently, the Show’s camera is to aid person-to-person communication, while the Look is supposedly designed purely for fashion. It doesn’t take a genius, however, to imagine a time when these uses have been developed into something more intrusive. Could the camera be used to spot when you’re out of milk? Perhaps it might identify weight gain or loss.
Either of these things, or more, could be used to target more products at you. Voice recommendations from Alexa, or suggestions when you next login to Amazon… and there are the ads when you’re browsing the web.
None of this is ideal, so we suggest that when you’re not using an Echo Show or Echo Look, you disable the camera. This is simple: you’ll find the button on top of the Echo Show. Simply switch it to Off.
Or covering it like you would a webcam, which is a cheap and sensible thing to do if you’re concerned about privacy.
4. Disable Voice Purchases
Being able to request items from Amazon via an Echo is a great experience. It’s liberating, in a “wow, I’ve never done this before, it’s the future!” sort of way. However, it’s pretty dangerous in the wrong hands.
How long will it take for someone to pop into your house and say “Alexa, buy a new Microsoft Surface Pro”? Okay, it’s a pretty extreme example, but you get the idea. Disabling the Echo Voice Purchasing option is wise, and again this can be done via the Alexa app on your phone.
Go to Settings, scroll right down, then tap Voice Purchasing and toggle Purchase by voice to Off. Alternatively, if you want to retain this feature, you can set up a PIN to confirm purchases. In the Voice Purchasing screen, ensure Purchase by voice is set to On, then toggle Voice Code to On. Confirm your four-digit PIN, and you’re done. In future, when you wish to make a purchase via Alexa, you’ll be asked for the PIN.
Just make sure you’re alone; this system has a major flaw, as anyone nearby will hear your PIN!
5. Delete Voice Data
But to work effectively, the Amazon Echo does record your commands. Each instruction you give that begins with “Alexa” is recorded, then stored in the cloud. Is this a privacy breach? Well, you have total control over it, and it’s even possible to delete the commands.
Do this by opening amazon.com/mycd, and sign into your account. Go to Your Devices, select your device, then click the ellipses. Click Manage Voice Recordings, and then Delete. You’ll need to confirm the action by clicking Delete again. Individual voice recordings can also be deleted. Open the app on your Android or iOS device, click Settings then History. Here you can find all commands and play them back. All recordings are listed chronologically, and you can delete each one by tapping Delete Voice Recordings.
Note that by deleting commands recorded by your Amazon Echo device, you are potentially reducing the accuracy of the device’s voice recognition.
6. Use the Mute Button
Perhaps the most obvious privacy option when it comes to Amazon Echo devices, it’s amazing so many people overlook it. But if you want privacy from voice recordings, and protection from voice purchases — or even if you simply want to stop someone from switching radio stations or playlists — the Mute button is your friend.
Its position differs by device, but once tapped, the usually blue “listening” indicator will switch to red. In this state, the Amazon Echo cannot hear, and will not act on any instruction you give it. Until you “unmute” the device with a second tap of the Mute button, it will continue with its current task. That might have been playing music; your Amazon Echo might have been otherwise dormant.
Keep Privacy Alive, Despite Amazon
The Amazon Echo devices are great. Capable of making life easier in several ways, you probably don’t want to give your Echo too much power.
For instance, an Echo can enhance your productivity, perhaps by helping with creating a shopping list or adding meetings to your calendar. An Amazon Echo can help you place a takeaway order for delivery or pickup.