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Tech Savvy: Amazon Alexa smart speaker setup, security

Voice assistants have grown in popularity over the past few years with many big-name players such as Apple and Google getting into the game, but one of the first and most popular is Alexa by Amazon, with its Echo devices becoming commonplace in many households, especially as recent Christmas gifts.

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The Echo Dot and the Echo Flex are voice assistants by Amazon.com. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Congrats! For those who may have been gifted an Amazon smart speaker this past Christmas, it’s a futuristic electronic device that holds a world of promise, but where to begin?

One of the most popular lines of smart speakers comes from Amazon. The online retail giant practically invented the modern day voice assistant or at least made it more commonplace.

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By now, most have a rudimentary understanding from popular culture such as TV commercials or YouTube videos of how the device works: say “Alexa” first, ask a question or give a command, and the smart speaker responds in the appropriate fashion.

Popular inquiries or orders include requesting the weather forecast or news headlines via its built-in microphone, or setting reminders and alarms to be announced later via its speakers.

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There are many more things smart speakers can do, and Amazon isn’t the only game in town. Tech giants such as Google and Apple have come out with their own virtual assistants and models, like Google Assistant and Home; and Apple Siri and Apple HomePod, respectively.

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For those of us who are a little trepidatious about actually owning, setting up and using a virtual assistant, especially one that is always listening, and if privacy concerns are part of the fears, here are a few things that can be done right out of the box to help one feel more at ease.

Focusing on Amazon’s popular virtual assistant Alexa and its Echo-branded line of smart speakers, the technology company has done more in recent years to be more transparent about its data practices and has made some strides in addressing consumer privacy concerns.

When Amazon announced a new series of Echo devices, it launched updates to its Alexa Privacy Hub with explanations on privacy controls. Learn more here: https://amzn.to/3bilgNV .

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For example, to ensure Alexa isn’t keeping a record of what’s said, simply say to the Echo device, “Alexa, delete everything I said today,” which will erase anything recorded between midnight and the instant one gives the order to the virtual assistant.

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But to do so, the owner has to opt into the feature to be able to delete conversations by voice. In the Alexa app, go to “Settings,” and select “Alexa Account,” then “Alexa Privacy,” and finally “Review Voice History.” From there, toggle on the “Enable Deletion by Voice” feature.

(Downloading the Alexa app onto a smartphone first from Apple’s App Store or Google’s Google Play app store, and a Wi-Fi connection, is required for setting up an Echo device. An Amazon account is also required.)

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The Echo Flex (left) plugs directly into an electrical outlet while the Echo Dot requires a cord to connect to a power source. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

To arrange Alexa history to delete automatically, go to “Settings” in the Alexa app, select “Alexa Privacy” and then “Manage Your Alexa Data.” Under “Manage your voice recordings,” use the “Automatically delete recordings” toggle to have it delete recordings after three or 18 months.

All of Amazon’s line of Echo-branded devices comes with a physical mute button, too, which turns off the always-listening microphone, so if one wants an extra safeguard against unwanted eavesdropping, use the button. (Or a more drastic but equally simple measure is to unplug it.)

Part of the appeal of Amazon’s virtual assistant is one can order items from Amazon simply by commanding it. But for those wary of accidental purchases of, for example, boxes of candy, especially by, say, children with a sweet tooth, it’s easy enough to disable the function.

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(In Amazon Echo, the voice-purchasing feature is enabled by default, but the device owner can choose a four-digit password rather than disabling the function entirely.)

To disable the feature, open the Alexa app, open “More,” (the icon that looks like three horizontal lines), select “Settings,” select “Account Settings,” select “Voice Purchasing,” and turn “Voice Purchasing” on or off, and voila! No more surprise or costly shipments of jelly beans.

Speaking of shipments — pun intended — the Echo device one may have received as a Christmas gift last year can also let the owner know via its Alexa virtual assistant when something ordered from Amazon.com is due to arrive today.

If the item ordered is a surprise birthday gift, having Alexa announce it to the world is a surefire way to ruin things, so to switch shipping notifications off in the Alexa app, go to “More,” “Notifications,” “Amazon Shopping” and then switch off all the delivery and order updates.

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Alexa’s Drop In feature is an optional feature that lets a person connect instantly to supported Alexa-enabled devices, like an intercom. The audio channel is opened instantly without the person in another room with another Echo device having to accept the call.

Amazon also lets you Drop In on external contacts, so it can be a privacy nightmare. To check the Drop In settings, tap on “Communicate” at the bottom of the Alexa app screen, then tap “Drop In” and check which devices or contacts have permission to “Drop In.”

With some of those settings set up properly, one can make the most out of a new Alexa-enabled Echo device, cut down on the time worrying about how to use it and can quickly enjoy it faster.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGY
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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