How to guard privacy with smart speakers

By Marilyn Moritz - Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - Alexa may just be the most commonly spoken name in homes across the country. 

But as use of Amazon, Google and Apple smart speakers grows, so do concerns about privacy and what information the devices are sending back to their mother ships.  

Eric Rhee has five digital assistants in his home, but he's concerned about the privacy of his two young daughters.

"I'm concerned down the line when they start having conversations with friends, and those conversations get recorded. I wonder if that somehow impacts their privacy," Rhee said. 

Amazon, Apple and Google all say they take steps to protect users' privacy. But all three also confirmed they have teams listening to recordings of people using their voice commands and interfaces. 

"Companies like Amazon and Google have a ton of consumer data, and they're using that data to make their products better," said Consumer Reports Tech Editor Bree Fowler. "(They're) constantly working to improve their AI by having both people listen to the recordings and also through machine learning and technology."

The companies say they use recordings to improve how their smart speakers work, not for targeting ads. And, in the face of mounting pressure from consumers and advocates, Apple and Google temporarily stopped having people review recordings.

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If you are among the millions who use a smart speaker, there are ways to guard your privacy. 

It's relatively easy to mute the microphone when it's not being used and to delete conversations that have been recorded.

"If you turn off those speakers when you're not using them, you don't have to worry as much," Fowler said. "But, you can also go through and just spot check your recordings. If you hear something you don't want them to hear, you can delete it."

By altering privacy settings, you may be giving up some functionality of the device.

Earlier this year, Amazon announced it would be introducing new controls to make it easier for Alexa users to delete records of conversations with the device. Among the improvements, the company says, will be a new online privacy hub.

Alexa users can also use voice command to say, "Alexa, delete what I just said," or, "Alexa, delete what I said today." Before you use that feature, you have to activate it.

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