Alexa, Google Home, Cortana, Siri..... We've all heard of them and some of us love them, and some people are super wary of them. So let's try and separate fact from fiction.
Personally, I have a couple of Amazon Echo's (Alexa) and I love them - they wake me up to pretty much any radio station in the world, I shout my shopping list at them whilst I'm looking in the cupboards, I add things to my to-do list in the middle of the night, she reminds me to exercise and stretch, she reads books to me from Audible, she helps me sleep I'm wide awake at 3am and she entertains me with random 80's music when I have a rosé fuelled craving to dance.....
Is she listening to me? Well yes, because she has to listen for her name (wake word) to be able to react to my request. And she does store what you say to her 'Alexa, add chia seeds to my shopping list' or 'Alexa, play the soundtrack to Flashdance'. This is exactly the same as Netflix recording what you watch in order to 'suggest movies for you' or Google remembering your address so that it can work out how far it is from your house to the place you've just googled.
But she's not just listening constantly and sending your conversations to third parties. And, even if she was; in my house, whoever was receiving the transcripts would be pretty bored by my chatting to the dog and watching bad British soaps. If you don't want her listening, just hit the microphone button and she goes to sleep.
Positives? Smart speakers save you time and energy on a daily basis. Asking Alexa a random question that arises at the dinner table keeps the focus in the room and avoids someone reaching for their phone, looking down and typing. Seniors don't need to be tech savvy to learn to call relatives, ask for help, request some music or play a little game. They are a huge bonus to the visually impaired, the disabled community and people with memory loss. I don't use the light switch or thermostat functionality because I think it's lazy, but if I had severe rheumatism or a muscle wasting disease? It could be a huge help towards more independence as well as saving power. It might be even more tech, but Alexa may be the first step in putting down that addictive crutch that the smart phone has become.
Negatives? When your two year old niece works out that she can say 'Alexa play baby shark' over and over again.
Here are some simple steps to strengthen your smart speaker security.
1 - your smart speaker is only as safe as your network - change the name and password on your wi-fi network every so often, or even create a 2nd network for use with gadgets that you use to shop (phones, computers, ipads and smart speakers) and firewall those networks so that only chosen people can connect to them.
2 - Change the wake word from Alexa to something else (this doesn't work for Google home that only reacts to OK Google). This avoids other people talking to your Echo or ordering things from your account.
3 - Strengthen your Amazon password (I am so guilty of having the same very obvious password since I started using Amazon decades ago). Use 2 factor authentication - it's a bit annoying but very worth it.
3 - Delete old recordings. In your account under Settings --> History, you can see past commands and choose to erase them. Chances are this is more embarrassing than dangerous, but just in case you revealed personal details to her at some point, you can delete them.