Make Life Easier with Smart Speakers While Protecting Your Privacy

An Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker

Smart speakers have been around for a while now, but to a lot of folks, they remain a mystery. You might be wondering what a smart speaker can do for you or whether there are reasons to be concerned about them.

So what is a smart speaker?

A smart speaker looks like a regular small, modern stereo speaker. But when connected to the internet, it can help you navigate the web, answer questions and assist with certain tasks just by hearing your voice. Working in tandem with other smart devices, like phones, plugs, bulbs and appliances, they can be extremely useful for people with impaired vision.

Some of the better-known smart speaker products include Amazon’s Echo, featuring a virtual assistant named Alexa; Apple’s HomePod, whose virtual assistant is called Siri; and Google’s Nest, whose virtual assistant has the less colorful name Google Assistant.

In spite of the many potential benefits of smart speakers, some people are hesitant to use them out of the fear that the device is “listening in” and collecting private data. While it’s wise to think about protecting your privacy in this day and age, there are simple steps you can take to make sure that your smart speaker is not spying on you.

A smart speaker doesn’t start listening until it hears a particular word, called the “wake word.” This is the name or phrase you must say before issuing a command. For example, when using the Google line of smart devices, a common wake phrase is “Hey Google.” Some devices even allow users to change the wake word. On the Amazon Echo line of products, you can choose to wake up the device with any of several different words: “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Computer” or “Ziggy.”

After the speaker has completed its task, you can mute the device’s microphone, putting it into a “do not listen” mode in which it will stop responding to your voice. Most smart speakers have a button or switch for that function. For users who are blind or visually impaired, activation of this mode is indicated both visually and with an audible beep or spoken prompt. Once the mic is muted, even saying the wake word will not make the device start listening again. Most smart speakers require users to hit a switch to return it to listening mode.

Smart speakers can make some common tasks easier, and some of their functions can be ideal for individuals who are blind or have low vision. And if you’re worried that Siri is eavesdropping inappropriately, there are simple steps you can take to help you stay safe and use these devices with confidence.

Confused or concerned?

Please feel free to contact Council staff with expertise in technology at 800-783-5213 to answer your questions or help set up your smart home.

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