GUIDE

How to Make Amazon Echo and Google Home Private and Secure

Statistics suggest that over 35 million “smart speaker” devices, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, will be in regular use in the US by the end of 2017.

It’s not surprising that these rather futuristic devices are so popular; they can do a whole bunch of things, and all you need to do is ask them – Star Trek style.

Here’s just a small list of the things Echo and Google Home can do with only a voice command:

  • Play music
  • Create “to do” lists and shopping lists
  • Order taxis
  • Order something from Amazon (in the case of Amazon Echo and Alexa)
  • Control smart home devices including lights, central heating systems and door locks
  • Look things up online – from cinema times to sports results to weather reports
  • Solve math problems

These devices place a (rather effective) personal assistant in the home at a low price. Their popularity is understandable – quite aside from the fact such modern tech is quite compelling in itself.

But all this comes at a price – and that price is privacy. Since the devices launched, we have seen an increase surrounding concerns of the security and privacy of Amazon Echo and Google Home.

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Making Amazon Echo “Private”

If one of my IT consultancy clients asked me how to make Amazon Echo private, my instinctive (and honest) answer would be: “don’t get one.” The same would apply to Google Home.

For these devices to do their job effectively, they must be listening all the time. They need to “hear” when you say “Hey Alexa” or “OK Google.” If you have one of these Amazon or Google devices in your home, everything you say around it is being pinged up to their “big data” cloud servers, helping these huge companies to learn more about you and your daily habits by the minute. (In the case of Google Home, information stays local to the device until “OK Google” is heard.)

The companies involved make no secret of the fact they analyse the way you use these devices. This is so they can build a detailed picture of what you’re likely to ask the devices in the future. This is great for functionality – but for privacy, not so much…

Now, individual attitudes to privacy vary. Some people like the way that online advertising is always so accurate. Others find this accuracy freaky and disconcerting. If you fall into the latter camp, you probably don’t intend to install a device that permanently listens to you in your home!

Amazon Echo and Google Home: Improving Privacy

With the above in mind, we’ll assume for the remainder of this guide that you own an Amazon Echo or Google Home, or plan to get one, and are already comfortable with the privacy compromises you simply cannot avoid if you choose to use one of these devices.

So long as you accept you’re already trusting Amazon or Google, and any third parties they work with, what can you do to make your Amazon Echo or Google Home as private as it CAN be?

To begin with, here are some tips that apply equally to both devices:

  1. Be aware that, unless they’re on “mute” mode or switched off, these devices are always listening to you (and anyone else talking in your home). The wisest approach is not to say anything in front of them that you wouldn’t happily say in the public domain. If you wouldn’t say it in public, or on a public webpage, you should think twice about saying it in front of a smart speaker.
  2. Be selective about which online accounts you use with you Amazon Echo or Google Home. Over 3,000 apps (skills) are available for the Echo alone. While each one you use adds to the scope of what your device can do, it also reduces your privacy further. Don’t activate more apps and online accounts for the sake of it.
  3. Mute your microphone whenever you want to stop your Amazon Echo or Google Home listening. In both cases, the mute function is activated by a physical button on the device itself. At the time of writing, neither device offers a mute that is voice activated. It’s impossible to imagine that this is anything other than by design. If you don’t trust the companies involved, you may even want to unplug the devices – but this raises the issue of why anyone would buy a device if they’re not comfortable using it!
  4. Familiarize yourself with how to clear out the request and recording history on your device (more on that later).

Next, we have some tips specific to each device.

Make Amazon Echo Private: Specific Tips

amazon echo

  1. Have a read through the FAQs for Amazon Alexa. Even if you’re not someone who tends to read these things, with something that integrates so deeply with your home life, you really should.
  2. Consider periodically deleting your Alexa recording history. This can have a negative effect on how well your device learns about you – but if you put privacy first, this is likely a minor concern.
  3. Review the voice purchasing settings or disable voice purchasing altogether. This isn’t specifically about privacy but could save you some money if you have children who realise they can use your new household gadget to order things!
  4. Enable the “end of request” tone, so you can hear when Alexa’s stopped listening to a request.
  5. Use mute when you’re not using the device.

Make Google Home Private: Specific Tips

  1. Familiarize yourself with the My Activity area of Google’s online services. All your interactions with Google are stored here, making for an eye-opening exposé on just how much the web giant knows about you. Your Google Home activity is here too, and you may want to clear it out from time to time.
  2. Use mute, and regularly check (using the lights on the device) whether your device is listening. You may inadvertently un-mute the device during dusting, for example.
  3. Review your settings so that you only share with Google the information you’re comfortable sharing.

Conclusion

The very nature of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices is that they’re not supposed to be private. You’re swapping some privacy for convenience, and the more you allow Amazon and Google to know about you, the more accurately these “home assistants” will be able to help you.

But just like search engines and social media, a by-product of sharing so much is that the companies involved get to build up a detailed picture of your daily life and habits. This “big data” is hugely valuable to them, and to their advertisers.

For some, using such a device will always be too far over the privacy line to consider. The question shouldn’t really be how to make Amazon Echo (or Google Home) private, but how to make using them a little bit more private. The tips above will help you do just that.


Ben Taylor Ben was a geek long before "geek chic," learning the ropes on BBC Micros, before moving on to Atari STs and IBM compatibles. He was "online" using a 1200bps modem before the Internet was even a thing. Now, after two decades in the industry, he writes about technology for various publications, operates a few websites of his own, and runs a bespoke IT consultancy based in London.

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