The Echo Dot Second Generation

Hello Alexa…

Skills and privacy settings for all new owners.

Like many people I received an Echo Dot for Christmas and at first I wondered what this little electronic hockey puck was supposed to do for me.
I set it up just like the directions said and then I asked it the first question.

That was a wow moment. It worked. Right away and then I started to explore all of the things that it could do for me and the household. 
Next thing you know we are asking all sorts of questions and unlike Siri on our Apple devices Alexa responded with a real answer about 85% of the time.

So I will state for everyone to read that I am very pleased with the product and the ease of setup. However, there is always room for improvement even for Alexa.

SKILLS

The one thing that is not very obvious to a new Alexa user unboxing the Echo is that Alexa while capable of understanding many requests needs to learn from code that is either programmed in Node.js or Python or Java.
The code once compiled is called a “skill”.

The more skills Alexa has the more specific your requests can be. 
For instance if you want local weather tailored to your address you can 
download a skill called “Big Sky” from your Alexa app and with a few steps on the Big Sky web site you now can get up to the minute weather for any address you specify.

The latest population count for skills is up to 7,000 right now and growing.
They range from storytelling, adventure games, grocery lists, trivia, jokes, work out apps etc. You can find a list of all the skills just by clicking on your skills tab in your Alexa app.

The Alexa App

The Alexa app can be installed on your mobile devices such as a phone or tablet or you can access the app through the website that is associated with your Amazon account.
Just go to alexa.amazon.com and you can sign in with your information and start to customize your product experience.
There are the ever present Help, and Settings and Sign out links as well as a place to try new things and of course the skills link.

The Settings tab though is something you will want to understand shortly after setting up.
This is where you can adjust your network address and manage some of the skills linked to your account.

The Settings Screen

There is even a link where you can train your Echo to understand the specific nuances of your voice. Through 25 pre-programmed utterances you will let Alexa get a good idea of how you pronounce things such as “naan” or “wikipedia”. 
That is actually a really neat aspect of the Voice recognition system called ASR (automatic speech recognition) and NSU (Natural Language Understanding). This system is finely tuned to accept many of the differences in the human dialect and it learns as more skills and words and languages are added.

Now for the big one…PRIVACY

About two days after I fell in love with this new device I started listening to all of my favorite news programs and reading articles about the Echo and was soon swamped with news about privacy issues and the Echo.

I was somewhat amused how many media outlets featured stories from privacy advocates and call in users who were terrified that the Echo was recording everything they said, and storing those conversations in the cloud for anyone to hack and access.
And then there was the story about the Echo that was going to be brought in as a witness to a murder case.

Less than one full week after Christmas when it was announced that the Echo was the most popular gift of the year we were being told to be afraid of it from many media outlets.

You Do Have Control of the Alexa Privacy.

I wanted to write this article for a couple of reasons. One I like this device and see lots of potential for it’s use and the whole concept of VUI (Voice User Interface). And Second I really get frustrated when new technology gets a black eye especially from those who don’t necessarily know how to use it.

Alexa is much like Facebook, Medium and LinkedIn. You the human, willingly give your personal information to these internet applications.
Your name, passwords, times you browse, data about your likes, dislikes, purchases etc etc.
But you still have controls over how you can edit and delete the amount of information you put out there.

Alexa’s privacy controls.

First, there is the mute button on top of the Echo. If you do not want to have the Echo be “aware” of a conversation. Push the button and the Echo gets a red ring. Nothing will be recorded on purpose or by accident.

Second, Alexa will only record your conversations when you use the “Wake” word. Which by default is “Alexa” Then the Echo starts recording.

Third, you can delete voice recordings. 
You can view your voice history inside the Settings Link in your Alexa App.
And you can delete each recording one by one.
And you can also do a mass delete from the Amazon web site. Just by following the link www.amazon.com/mycd

How to delete Alexa recordings from the FAQ on the Alexa App.

This will take you to Amazon’s site where you can manage your devices in this case the Echo.

Once you select the Echo you can click on the link below that says “Manage voice recordings” and that will take you to the next screen where you will be presented with a message explaining how to delete the recordings.

Now that you know…

Granted to many people the idea that a machine is recording your conversations and learning about you and your habits and storing this information somewhere you cannot see…well it can be hard to get used to.

And yes hackers will learn to hack the Amazon web services. That is what they do.

I am not going to say that there is not a potential for abuse to the system, but if you go into the adoption of new technology understanding the basics and how to do the minimal of security you may be able to enjoy this new dawn of voice recognition systems and may be able to contribute to it’s security and growth through your personal experiences.

I for one am going to tread into this new water with curiosity and a healthy respect for the unseen dangers that lurk in there by reading all I can and in my case beginning to develop skills for Alexa so I can get a better understanding of how deep and how dark that water actually is going to be.