I really like the new Amazon Echo Alexa device that my kids got me, but don’t want it listening all the time. Is there a way to “mute” it so that it’s not listening?
As the Internet of Things (IoT) keeps bringing us more and more smart home devices, it’s getting easier to just give up on privacy and assume that you’re going to be under surveillance 24×7. Not necessarily by someone sitting in a dark room listening to your ambient noise – or watching you through an on-board camera – but by software and AI-powered programs that are waiting to detect faces, unusual activity, specific sounds or words. Think about it: If you can look at your phone and have it unlock, if you can walk into your house and say “Alexa, turn on kitchen lights”, that means the devices are monitoring non-stop, waiting for that event to occur.
Rather creepy, really, and if you’re the kind who doesn’t trust big manufacturers and software developers (and perhaps the government) then the idea of these devices being on in your house, even in your bedroom!, can be legitimately alarming. Fortunately they all have ways you can disable various features, from listening to watching to working at all. There’s always the most dramatic solution too: Unplug ’em. You lose the functionality, of course, but you lose the risk vector too. Also consider what devices you need where: The Amazon Echo Dot is small, has no on-board camera, and is easily hooked up to a speaker or existing stereo system and they’re delightfully inexpensive too.
If you get an Echo Dot, this is what you’ll see on the top (with slight variation based on design generation):
See that circle with the slash through it on the right? That’s a mute button and will disable the microphone. Try it: Tap the button. The unit’s ring light will turn and stay red to show it’s in mute, then say “Alexa! What time is it?”. Nothing will happen. Muted.
In fact, just about all of the Amazon devices have a very similar sort of feature. For example, the Amazon Echo Show 8″ has a switch that lets you both disable the camera and mute the microphone:
Some Amazon devices have cameras but no way to disable them on the device, however. Notable in this category is the terrific little Amazon Echo Spot clock. Why is there no mute feature? No clue. On my own Echo Spot I have a tiny piece of post-it paper covering the camera just above the circular screen.
With the next biggest market share, Google’s smart home devices also have similar hardware switches and controls. For example, the Google Nest Hub Max, their latest device with a big screen, camera and, of course, always-listening microphone, has this switch on the back of the unit:
Well labeled? Not so much, but they figure that the majority of folk won’t be muting a device they bought to listen to their every request, I suppose. The Google Home has a much more overt and obvious button on its back, by comparison:
It also has the most logical and understandable graphical icon too. Nicely done, Google. And they even carried this design touch into the design of the terrific little Google Home Mini, as you can see:
Now, does having the orange displayed mean that it’s listening, or that it’s not listening? Green or red would convey a more logical color message in terms of its functionality, of course. As with all of these, the best way to test is to use the switch then talk to the device to see what happens!
Facebook heard the message too, and the Facebook Portal device (arguably the most concerning of all of these as Facebook has already gotten in trouble many times for its data mining and collection and analysis of personal information) has a switch too:
This is a particularly nice implementation, actually, because it lets you disable the camera and leave the mic enabled if you prefer. Or you can slide it all the way and disable both for maximum privacy.
Many of the software apps associated with these smart home devices also offer some privacy settings, but even if you turn off your Amazon Echo in the app, the device itself is still listening and processing every sound it encounters. The harsh reality is that you really can’t have maximum personal privacy and still build out a smart home. From smart bulbs that check in with their manufacturers to hubs that track your phone location, smart homes work best when you just buckle under and accept that you’ll be losing some of your privacy to gain all the useful functionality.
And remember, there’s always opaque tape that does a marvelous job of covering up laptop, webcam and smart device cameras!