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Amazon Echo hears everything you say

Since the Echo was first released in late 2014, around 5.1 million units have already been sold. That's pretty impressive! Especially when you factor in that the initial launch of the product was for Amazon Prime members only. It wasn't until the summer of 2015 that the Echo was released to everybody.

If this past Christmas is any indicator, it doesn't seem as if this trend will be slowing anytime soon. Just recently, Amazon reported that this year's sales were nine times greater than those in 2015.

But with millions of people bringing either the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot into their homes and connecting them to their private Wi-Fi networks, there is some cause for concern.

What owners of these virtual assistants might not realize is that they're always listening. That means, if you're not careful, they could be a privacy nightmare.

How the Amazon Echo works

Before diving into the privacy aspect of the Amazon Echo, here's a brief summary of what it is and what it does, in case you're not familiar.

There are two versions of the Amazon Echo to choose from: the standard Echo, which costs $180, and the Echo Dot, which costs $5o. (Click here if you're ready to buy these popular gadgets.)

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Both of these products have a built-in feature called "Alexa" that operates much like Siri does on your iPhone, or Cortana does for Windows.

Alexa is activated when it detects one of its wake words, which are "Alexa," "Amazon," or "Echo." You'll know that the device is ready for a command when the outer ring at the top glows blue.

When activated, Alexa allows you to search the web, play music, and even control other smart home devices you've added to your home network. For example, with the right smart gadgets you can turn off the lights in another room, lock the front door, turn up the thermostat, etc.

Echo is always listening

The downside is that Amazon keeps an audio recording of every voice command you've issued to Alexa. When you give a command to Alexa, a recording of that command is stored on Amazon's servers.

According to Amazon, there is also a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word that is stored along with each recording. That fraction of a second gets saved along with your main command, and the recording ends after the command has been processed.

Are these recordings all bad? Not necessarily. They're meant to enhance your user experience and help Alexa fine tune its comprehension.

However, in the same way you wouldn't feel comfortable letting someone go through your Google search history, you probably don't want others poking through your recent Alexa requests. That's why you need to know how to delete recordings captured by these always-listening virtual assistants.

Playing back and deleting Echo recordings

An extra fraction of a second doesn't seem like all that much. However, based on the way these virtual assistants work, it's safe to assume they record all the time and store recordings locally.

Don't believe us? Just look at this case in Benton County, Arkansas, where law enforcement officials believed recordings captured by an Echo device could hold the key to solving a murder.

To be on the safe side, it's a good idea to review Alexa's command history regularly, and clear out any recordings that don't need to be there.

Playback for Amazon Echo

Many people don't realize you can actually review your voice log with the Alexa app on iOS and Android. The app allows you to scroll through your activity and listen to each recording.

If you'd like to play an old entry, pull up the Alexa app and visit the History section within the settings. Tap on the entry you'd like to review in greater detail and tap the Play icon to listen to the recording.

Deleting Amazon Echo recordings

You can, of course, delete a recording by removing the associated entry on the Alexa app. You'll find this option again in the History section of the app's Settings. Select an entry, then tap the Delete button.

If you'd rather delete all the recordings in a single click, you can do this by visiting the "Manage Your Content and Devices" page at www.amazon.com/mycd.

However, when deleting entries, keep this in mind: Amazon warns that "deleting voice recordings may degrade your Alexa experience."

Muting the mics

For privacy, you can also mute the microphone on the Amazon Echo by pressing a physical button.

amazon-echo-microphone-mute

To turn the Echo's mic off, press the microphone off/on button on the top of the device. Whenever this button is red, the mic is off. To reactivate it, just press the button again.

Muting the mics will stop the Echo from listening; however, disabling the mics will also defeat the point of these virtual assistants. The always-on, always-listening nature of these smart virtual assistant speakers is what makes them truly compelling gadgets to have.

That said, it's still nice to know that you can mute the device during times you specifically don't want anyone (or anything) listening in.

Don't forget about Google Home

Although it's not quite as popular as the Amazon Echo, Google's new virtual assistant is also guilty of this always-listening functionality.

It's called Google Home, and it operates in a similar way by listening and recording in "short snippets" for the hotword "OK Google." If it detects this hotword, its LED lights activate and the recording is then sent to Google's servers.

Google Home

Google likewise saves a recording of each voice command given to Home. To view this data, open the Google Home app for iOS and Android and on the left drawer, tap on More Settings >> My Activity. 

Here, you can view each Google Home command recording your account has made accompanied by the time, date and the request. To delete a recording, just tap on the Menu button and select Delete. You can also visit myactivity.google.com to view and delete your My Activity data.

To mute Google Home, press its physical mute button located at the back of its shell. Similar to the Echo, if this button is activated and lit, the mic is off.

Note: If you're interested in purchasing one of these virtual assistants, but aren't sure which is better, check out Kim's column to see how the Amazon Echo and Google Home compare to each other.

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