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Is Alexa Spying? Check Your Amazon Echo Privacy Settings!

Jonathan Wylie is a digital learning consultant who has a passion for helping others get the best out of their technology.

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Is Amazon Listening to Everything You Say?

People have been suspicious of things like the Amazon Echo for about as long as we have had smart speakers. As these devices multiply and evolve, so does our paranoia. After all, this is how technology companies make their money. Google tracks what you search for so it can serve you ads based on your interests. Facebook and Instagram do the same with the types of posts you interact with. So, is Amazon using their Echo devices to spy on you and gather data on your shopping preferences? The answer is a little more nuanced than you might think.

How to Stop Alexa Listening All the Time

It's true. Alexa is always listening, but so is Siri, Cortana and the Google Assistant. This is the nature of how smart speakers work, but they are not recording everything that they hear. They are listening for a wake word that summons them to life so that they can answer your queries. On an Amazon Echo, the default wake word is Alexa, but if you prefer, you can change it to Amazon, Echo, or Computer.

If this creeps you out more than you would like, it is good to know that you can mute the microphones on any Echo device whenever you feel like it. This obviously reduces some of the utility of having a hands-free smart speaker, but it can give you precious peace of mind. All you need to do is tap the mute button on top of your Echo speaker. You will know your Echo is muted when you see a solid red ring light up around your device. When muted, your Echo will not respond to voice commands. To turn the microphones back on, simply press the same button to unmute.

Press the mute button for the mic to stop Alexa listening to your conversations

Press the mute button for the mic to stop Alexa listening to your conversations

How to Review Your Alexa Voice History

So, the Echo does not record everything you say, but it does record everything that you ask Alexa, and this is where some of the paranoia starts to creep in. However, it's not because Alexia is spying on you, it's just part of how Amazon uses machine learning to develop and evolve the Echo devices to be more responsive to you and smarter over time.

You can see all the requests that have been made to your Echo speaker by going to alexa.amazon.com and scrolling through the Home tab, or by opening the Alexa app. Here's how that works on your smartphone.

  1. Open the Alexa app
  2. Tap More > Settings > Alexa Privacy
  3. Tap Review Voice History

Requests made to Alexa are viewable as a transcript as well as an audio recording. To hear an audio recording of something in your history, tap the arrow next to the request you would like to hear, and then press the play button to hear a recording of what Alexa heard.

You can review your voice history in the Alexa app for Android and iOS

You can review your voice history in the Alexa app for Android and iOS

How to Delete Your Alexa Voice Recordings

Not everyone is thrilled to hear that Amazon has an ongoing record of everything that is said to their Echo. However, you can delete individual entries, or go all in and delete everything that you have ever said to Alexa. Thankfully, this is not hard to do. It can be as simple as saying, "Alexa, delete what I just said," or "Alexa, delete everything I said today." For more granular options, grab your smartphone and follow the directions below:

  1. Open the Alexa app
  2. Tap More > Settings > Alexa Privacy
  3. Tap Review Voice History
  4. Next to Displaying, choose a date and/or device that you would like to view
  5. Tap Delete all recordings to delete from the range you selected

If this sounds like a chore that you don't want to repeat on a regular basis, you'll be glad to know that you can actually schedule Alexa to delete your recordings automatically. Here's how.

  1. Open the Alexa app
  2. Tap More > Settings > Alexa Privacy
  3. Tap Manage your Alexa data
  4. Scroll down to Automatically delete recordings, and choose a schedule to have Amazon delete your voice recordings for you.

Note that one of the options in this menu is to not save any recordings at all. This will delete your previous recordings and stop Amazon from recording any future requests that are made to Alexa.

You can choose what voice recordings to delete in the Alexa app

You can choose what voice recordings to delete in the Alexa app

How to Stop Amazon Employees from Listening to Your Alexa Recordings

Wait, is that a thing? Indeed it is. In fact, this option is on by default for all Echo devices. According to Amazon, an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed by employees to help test and develop new features. Amazon cautions that turning this option off may mean that voice recognition and new features will not work as well for you. However, if you want to disable if you can do so with the following directions:

  1. Open the Alexa app
  2. Tap More > Settings > Alexa Privacy
  3. Tap Manage your Alexa data
  4. Scroll down to Use of Voice Recordings and disable it
Are Amazon employees listening to your recordings? Not if you disable this option.

Are Amazon employees listening to your recordings? Not if you disable this option.

Review Echo Skills Permissions

Another privacy option that is worth reviewing on a regular basis is the permissions that have been granted to the various skills (apps) you have added to your Echo. Skills have access to personal information that could include your home address, email address, mobile phone number, and more. Here's how to check those permissions:

  1. Open the Alexa app
  2. Tap More > Settings > Alexa Privacy
  3. Tap Manage Skill Permissions

From here you can scroll through the skills that have been added to your Echo and disable anything that looks suspicious.

Video Review: The New Amazon Echo

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Amazon's Echo speakers are undoubtedly a fun, and useful addition to the modern home. However, by default, they are not always set up to be as discreet with your data as you might like. As such, it is important to regularly review the settings that are available to you so that you are in control and comfortable with what you are allowing Amazon to have access to. With the privacy settings under control, you are free to enjoy your Amazon Echo without worrying about ulterior motives.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jonathan Wylie