[UPDATED Oct. 5 with clarification that only permitted contacts can request to drop in.]
I've always been a bit suspect of friends who covered up their webcams with tape. It seemed like a lot of effort to avert a relatively small chance of danger. But there's a very specific reason you should be afraid of leaving your Echo device's camera on in a private space.
Say hello to Alexa's most creative — but also creepiest — communication feature: Drop In.
Here's how it works. You can use an Alexa device — be it the Echo Dot, Echo, Echo Show, Echo Spot or Echo Plus — to call another user with an Alexa device. Or you can use the Alexa app on your phone. If you're using the Echo Show or Echo Spot, which have cameras and screens, you can also make video calls, putting your friend on your Echo's screen and you on theirs.
Drop In allows users to make these calls unsolicited. In other words, if you have this feature enabled, someone in your contacts could "drop in" and see you while you're changing, yelling at your kids, playing with your cat or doing anything else you'd rather prying friends not see.
If Drop In is on, you can then designate any users in your Alexa contacts as "permitted contacts." Once a contact is "permitted," they can pop into your device at any time in the future, unless you revoke their "permitted contact" status.
This feature certainly has its uses. You could use it to check that your kids are doing their homework while you cook dinner, for example, or check that your dog hasn't destroyed the house while you're at work.
But the prospect of opening your device to someone on your contacts list who's not in your household is terrifying to me because it means that any friends or family (or suspicious figures) who gain access to their device can do the same. I might trust a friend to pop in at appropriate times, but the prospect of my friend's roommate or child peeking into my kitchen certainly isn't one I'm comfortable with. And there's even more danger if the device is given away or stolen.
Drop In is turned off by default on new Alexa devices, but I've found that many users have turned it on by accident, or have enabled it without knowing exactly what it is.
To turn off Drop In, open your Alexa app and go to Settings. Select your Alexa device and go to Communications.
You can then toggle Drop In to My Household if you still want to be able to check in on your kids. But people with roommates, and anyone else who wants to be safe from their family's or guests' prying eyes, should choose Off.
If you do want to allow some intra-household contacts to use Drop In, but are still worried about your family's privacy, your best option is to revoke your friend's Drop-In permission in between scheduled calls. To do this, press the speech bubble on the bottom of the Alexa app, select the Contacts icon in the top right corner, scroll to find the contact you're looking for and toggle Drop In to Off.