PORTLAND, Ore. (CNN Money) – It was Alexa’s equivalent of a pocket dial. A woman in Oregon claimed that her Amazon Echo smart speaker secretly recorded a private conversation, and then sent the audio file to an acquaintance. She told her story to a local news outlet and it spread, stoking fears about ‘always listening’ devices invading privacy.
Amazon confirmed the incident and claimed that it was caused by an extremely rare series of events. The Echo misheard four different commands causing it to turn on, record a voice message, and send it to a contact.
While that family said that they will no longer use Echo devices, there are some less extreme measures that smart speaker fans can take to protect their privacy.
Turn Off Calling & Messaging Features
It sounds like a simple solution, but turn off any features that can accidentally record and share audio. Unfortunately, there is no option to turn off voice messaging in the current Alexa app. You have to discuss it with Amazon customer service on the phone to turn off messaging.
You can call Amazon at 888-280-4331, or open the Alexa app, go to Help & Feedback and have Amazon customer service call you. Amazon said that this is the recommended way to turn of messaging features or delete contacts, but it is working on a way to control these settings inside of the app.
Don’t Give Alexa Your Contact List
When you first set up an Alexa device on a smartphone, you give the app permission to access the contacts saved on your phone. If you are a new Echo user, you can skip this step and deny it permission.
However, once you do give it permission, it uploads your contacts to its servers. Even if you revoke access in the phone’s settings or delete the app completely, Alexa will continue to have all of the phone numbers and email addresses that it already saved from you address book.
The only way to remove them is by calling customer service. You can, however, mute individual contacts in the app.
Pump Up The Volume Or Hit The Mute Button
If the volume on an Echo or similar device is turned all the way down, you may not hear it asking for prompts like the name of a contact. Especially if its excellent microphones pick up your voice in a different room.
Echo speakers have seven microphones that are always listening for Alexa’s ‘wake’ word. The devices only record and upload audio once they hear that word. But, as this case illustrates, sometimes it can be triggered by mistake.
When you want to be extra sure that a smart speaker isn’t listening, mute it. The Echo and Google Home have physical mute buttons, and Apple’s HomePod has a mute voice command. (“Hey Siri, stop listening.”) The light ring on the top of an Echo turns red when it is muted.
Avoid Saying Words That Sound Like “Alexa”
The recent secret recording incident began when an Echo misheard something that sounded like “Alexa,” its trigger word. According to the Rhyming Dictionary there aren’t many exact rhymes for Alexa, but you should avoid dropping adnexa, annexa, celexa, lenexa, or reflexa into casual conversations.
If somebody in your house is actually named Alexa, or something similar, you can change the Echo’s trigger word to Echo, Amazon or Computer.
Live Like Everyone’s Watching
While people are wringing their hands over the Echo, it’s not the only potential privacy risk in your home. There are other smart speakers using always-on microphones, like Google Home and Microsoft’s Cortana devices.
Smartphones can also be set to an ‘always listening’ mode, including iPhones and Google’s Pixel devices. Devices without microphones can collect private data too. Connected cameras like Ring doorbells and Nest Cams, sensors that track movement, and even something like a smart fridge can all collect information about you that you’d rather keep secret.
You can unplug them all until you are confident in the tech industry’s privacy protections, or you can go about your daily life avoiding doing or saying anything embarrassing (or illegal).
(© Copyright 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)