Tech Talk #62 – Oct. 14, 2017

Smart speakers: how to protect your privacy

Smart speakers are voice-controlled WiFi-connected devices that are used as virtual assistants. They can look like a hockey puck, a large air freshener or a regular speaker. Amazon started things off with their Echo line and was successful enough that Google has entered the market with their Google Home devices.

 

The speakers work by listening for their wake word (Alexa for Echo and OK, Google for Google Home) and then do what you ask. Smart speakers can do things like check the weather, play music, set a timer, make a shopping list, look up trivia, and more.

 

Once configured, your smart speaker knows your Amazon or Google account info, so it’s easy to place an Amazon order on Echo or have Google Home read out your emails or schedule, which is fine if you live alone and don’t have guests. But if you don’t want your daughter using your Amazon Echo to order herself a Power Wheels Barbie Jeep Wrangler or have a guest ask Google Home to read out your emails at dinner, here are a few settings you should use.

 

Amazon Echo

To control purchases made with your Echo, set up a PIN number for purchases. Go to Voice Purchasing from the Settings menu in the Alexa app on your phone (yes, you’ll need the Alexa app) and set up a PIN or disable voice purchasing altogether. If you choose to use a PIN, you’ll need to say it out loud to confirm a purchase through the Echo. Of course, anyone listening now knows your PIN, so maybe go ahead and disable voice purchasing.

 

To stop your Echo from picking up accidental commands, you can turn on a notification sound in the Alexa app. Go to Sounds on the device settings page. You can also choose History from the main Settings page in the Alexa app to see if there are any voice commands you don’t recognize—just to keep an eye on what your Echo is being used for.

 

Google Home

Google Home gives you access to a lot of the personal data that’s in your Google apps and services. To control this, Google has introduced voice recognition for multiple users, so only you can see your Google data. It works pretty well now and will only get better. To set it up, open the Google Home app, tap the Devices icon and the menu button for your Home speaker (three dots): pick Settings and the link to set up multi-user access. If you don’t see the multi-user access option yet, Google is rolling out the feature in an update.

 

While you’re in Devices, you can disable “personal results” by tapping the menu for your Google Home and then tapping Settings. Tap More, then scroll down to find the option—once turned off, no one can make payments through your Google account, tap into your calendar, send your photos over to a Chromecast or any other shenanigans.

 

For now, Google Home is the only smart speaker offering multi-user access, but Amazon is working on it for their Echo devices.

 

Is the microphone is always on?

The speakers need to be listening for their wake word, so yes, the microphone is always on. Once a smart speaker hears its wake word, it sends a recording of the command it heard to Amazon or Google cloud servers. Those cloud servers are where smart speakers get their smarts.

 

Should you be concerned that Amazon or Google are collecting data about what you ask your smart speakers and sending it to their cloud? From a security standpoint, no. All the data going up and down to Amazon’s and Google’s servers is encrypted, and both devices require secure passwords during the setup process. Your data is safe from anyone other than Amazon or Google accessing it.

 

But they do collect information every time you interact with your smart speaker, and they add that data to everything else they know about you so they can better predict the things you’ll be interested in buying or knowing.

 

If all this data gathering bothers you, don’t get a smart speaker. And don’t use Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Bixby (Samsung) or OK, Google (Google) on your phone or computer either. They all do the same thing with your data.

 

Foolproof mistakes

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” — Douglas Adams – An English writer, humorist, and dramatist. He is best known as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy.

 

Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at greg@tech-hachapi.com.

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