How to Set Up a Smart Speaker for Privacy
Here are the controls you need to mute the microphone and delete recordings collected by Amazon, Apple, and Google
Smart speakers are inexpensive and easy-to-use points of entry into the world of smart devices. But the very thing that makes them so affordable—the cloud-based, artificial-intelligence-powered processing of your voice requests—can also raise privacy questions.
As researchers at Northeastern University in Boston have demonstrated, smart speakers often start recording by mistake, after mishearing the device’s wake word, but they also tend to stop within seconds.
That may offer some comfort. However, the three big companies behind smart speaker technology—Amazon, Apple, and Google—have also been known to allow employees or outside contractors to listen to recordings stored on their servers to improve device performance in voice recognition.
To keep the company from listening: Amazon smart speakers allow you to control whether your device sends information back to the company to help improve Alexa, as opposed to just responding to your commands. Here’s how to make the change.
Open the Alexa app on your smartphone and tap the menu button on the top-left of the screen.
Select Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa. Next, switch off the toggle next to Help Improve Amazon Services and Develop New Features.
Then switch off the toggle next to your name under Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions.
According to Amazon, voice recognition and new features might not work as well when you have the setting turned off.
To mute your speaker: The simplest way to control what your smart speaker hears is to mute it when you’re not using it. Of course, the unit won’t respond to voice commands until you turn it back on.
You can mute an Amazon Echo by pressing the microphone On/Off button on the top of the device. When this button turns red (or, in the case of newer models, makes the ring at the base glow red), the mic is off. To reactivate it, you need to press the button again.
If you have a third-party smart speaker that uses the Alexa digital assistant, consult your manufacturer’s instructions to find out how to mute your unit.
To review or delete your recordings: Amazon stores your recorded interactions in the cloud. You have the option of seeing what’s there and deleting the contents.
Open the App and select Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History. That will show you the recordings, which can be searched for by keyword or sorted by date. There’s also a button to Delete All Recordings for Today.
To delete all the recording on the device, tap Date Range > All History. Note that erasing all the recordings might reduce the smart speaker’s ability to recognize your voice. This setting affects only recordings already made; it won’t keep the speaker from recording you in the future.
Amazon has voice commands to help you manage recordings: “Alexa, delete what I just said” and “Alexa, delete everything I said today.”
Before you can use these voice commands, you have to activate them. On the Alexa app, tap the three bars in the upper left and choose Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History. Flip the toggle switch to enable Deletion by Voice.
To hear the last thing an Alexa speaker recorded, say, “Alexa, tell me what you heard.” If your Echo did something that surprised or confused you, you can ask, “Alexa, why did you do that?”
You can also choose to have your older voice recordings deleted on a regular schedule. Tap Settings > Manage Your Alexa Data > Smart Home Device History > Choose How Long to Save Device History. Select 18 months, 3 months, or Until I Delete It.
To keep the company from listening: Apple has stopped retaining recordings of users’ interactions with Siri by default but will continue to store computer-generated transcripts of those interactions.
Consumers can opt to allow the company to keep audio samples to help improve Siri’s capabilities, but those recordings would be analyzed by employees rather than outside contractors, as in the past. The company says it deletes recordings that are triggered inadvertently.
To mute your speaker: The simplest way to control what your HomePod hears is to mute the device when you’re not using it. Of course, the unit won’t respond to voice commands until you turn it back on.
The HomePod doesn’t have a physical mute button, but you can mute it with a voice command: “Hey, Siri, stop listening.” The speaker will remind you that this command will turn off the mic and that you’ll have to tap the button on the top to turn the device back on. Then you can say “Hey, Siri, start listening.”
Technically, the device’s mic remains on throughout that process to calibrate the speaker’s bass response, but the device won’t respond to voice commands until you turn the mic back on.
You can also go to the Details page on the Apple Home app and turn off the “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” option.
On the Details page, there’s also an option to replace the “Listen for ‘Hey Siri’” function with one where you press and hold the button on the speaker to start Siri. On the same page, you can turn on settings that make the device light up or give an audible signal when Siri is being used.
To review or delete your recordings: Apple allows you to see and delete conversations that were recorded by your HomePod speaker.
To find your history, go to the Settings tab in the Apple Home app and choose Siri > Search History.
To delete your history, go to Settings in the Home app and choose Siri History > Delete Siri History.
To keep the company from listening: Google returned to using human evaluation of recordings for AI training late last summer. But the company says it will do that only if you opt in.
To check that setting, open the Google Home app on your smartphone, click on the Account tab on the upper right, and tap Assistant Settings > Your Data in the Assistant > Audio recordings. If the Pause toggle is switched off, feel free to adjust it.
To mute your speaker: The simplest and most reliable way to maintain control over what your smart speaker hears is to mute your device when you’re not using it. Of course, the unit won’t respond to voice commands until you turn it back on.
The Google Home has a mute button, while the Hub Max and Hub Mini have a toggle switch on the side. If you have a third-party device that uses Google Assistant, consult your manufacturer’s instructions to find out how to mute your unit.
You can adjust how sensitive smart speakers are to the “Hey Google” wake word by changing the settings in the Google Home app.
Tap the name of the device, tap the Settings icon in the upper right, and scroll down to More where you’ll find the “Hey Google” sensitivity setting. Moving the slider to the right will make the speaker less sensitive and less prone to unintentional activations.
To review or delete your recordings: Google allows you to see and delete conversations that have been recorded by your smart speaker.
Open the Account tab on the upper right of the Google Home app and tap My Activity. You can search by keyword or by date, and delete your recordings individually or in groups.
The most privacy-friendly option is to delete all your activity with a single command. Tap the three-dot icon and choose “Delete activity by . . . .” Select All Time > Delete to eradicate your entire history.
A new privacy feature called Guest Mode prevents the speaker from collecting not only recordings of your voice interactions (“Hey Google, please turn off my office light”) but also any record of the activity itself (for example, “At 8:08 pm on Tuesday, you asked Google Assistant to turn off the office light”). Guest Mode can be activated by saying, “Hey Google, turn on Guest Mode,” and turned off by voice command, too.
Another new privacy feature allows you to periodically delete the data automatically. To set this up, go to the My Activity page and tap Auto Delete. To save your settings, tap Next > Confirm and look for the Preferences saved message.
Erasing all the recordings might reduce your assistant’s ability to recognize your voice. Note also that this setting affects only recordings already made and won’t keep the speaker from recording you in the future.
If Google Assistant recorded something you didn’t intend it to, you can say “Hey Google, that wasn’t for you” and Google Assistant will delete the last thing you said.
You can also ask “Hey Google, are you saving my audio data?” to learn about your privacy controls.
On a device with a screen, you can go directly into the settings to change your preferences.
Protecting Your Privacy From Smart Speakers
How much is your smart speaker listening to you? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Bree Fowler explains to host Jack Rico how you can protect your digital privacy.