Raunchy music. Remember, Echo and Home will only play music that's connected to your account. So, to limit explicit lyrics, you should only link services that allow you to set parental controls, such as Amazon Prime Music, Google Play, and Pandora. You'll need to set content filters in the apps themselves.
Unauthorized purchases. Make sure kids know to ask for permission before buying things or adding items to your shopping list. You can also prevent unwanted purchases by clicking a few settings in each device's respective apps. In the Alexa app, you can turn off voice purchasing altogether or keep it on but require a PIN for all purchases. In the Google Home app in the Payments section, toggle off Pay with Your Assistant.
Creepy "drop-ins." Both devices allow you to make phone calls ("Hey Google, call Toys 'R' Us!"). But Amazon is offering something called "Drop In" that allows you to make voice and video calls to an Echo device in another location—sort of like Skype or FaceTime. If you have devices in different rooms of your home, you can use Drop In like an intercom system to "drop in" and let the kids know dinner is ready. With room-to-room Echos, you can start listening immediately—no one has to answer the call. You can also use Drop In if you have elderly relatives living elsewhere that you need to check on. The feature has to be manually enabled for each contact you want to use it with, and if you Drop In on another home, the receiver can decline the call. If you use the screen-based Amazon Show, you'll appear in a frosted window until the call is accepted. Imagine your best friend "dropping in" when you're in the middle of potty-training—no thanks!
Absolutely. The privacy and security issues related to these devices are complex, evolving, and potentially very serious (and cannot all be covered in this article). If you have an Amazon or Google account, you've already accepted some of the privacy risks of online life. With Alexa and Home, the same companies that track what you buy, what you watch, where you go online, and even your contacts are right there in your home. And they're listening. Each company offers some privacy settings in its apps (like the ability to delete your command history), and you can turn off the microphone when you don't want it to hear you (although it comes back on when you ask for it; which is weird if it wasn't supposed to be listening).Neither company is super transparent about how it gathers, stores, and uses the information it collects, and both leave open potential future uses for all that data -- essentially getting you to opt into a future transaction that has not yet been identified. Some experts speculate that the more comfortable people get with the device, the more Google and Amazon will infringe on your privacy. For example, they could give transcripts of audio recordings to third-party app developers.
This is a huge concern and was the biggest contributor to the cancellation of Aristotle, Mattel's proposed kid-targeted home assistant. That device was nixed in 2017 after an outcry over third parties collecting sensitive information about children. Both Echo and Home allow you to create individual user profiles for each member of the household, including kids. And both companies offer voice profiles for different family members with different privileges for each person -- that's right, you can train the devices to recognize your kids' voices. Although kids' accounts require parental consent, they supply Amazon and Google with lots of information about the littlest members of your household, possibly including matters you'd prefer to keep private, such as medical issues, citizenship status, or problems in school. The companies encrypt that data, and they don't store it forever. But having that information "in the cloud" means it potentially could be used by third parties to whom you haven't specifically given consent. Plus, it makes your information vulnerable to data breaches. For now, it's safest to limit user profiles to adult members of the household.
One of the reasons Amazon and Google are vying so strenuously to be your go-to home assistant is because the brand you choose pretty much locks you into that company's products and services. Each company offers a slew of related devices designed for its respective technology universe (for example, Google's Chromecast and Amazon's Fire TV Stick streaming media devices). Each company is also selling the content that plays on those devices. Whether you buy one is up to you. Being an informed customer is the best way to use it safely and get the most out of it.
This article was originally published on Common Sense Media.