Many of us are in unhealthy relationships — with tech companies.
The makers of some our most omnipresent technology like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have repeatedly jeopardized user trust by tracking or sharing data they weren’t supposed to, either on purpose or through hacks. And yet, incident after incident, we keep them at the center of our digital lives.
A new smart device survey by Consumers International and the Internet Society highlights this seeming contradiction. Some 63 percent of people find connected devices to be “creepy,” and 75 percent don’t trust the way their data is shared by those devices, according to a survey of people in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, France, and the United Kingdom.
That hasn’t stopped them from buying these devices, which — through an array of cameras, microphones, and other sensors — have intimate access to our lives.
Nearly 70 percent of survey takers said they own one or more connected device, which include smart home appliances, fitness monitors, and gaming consoles. For the study, smart or connected devices were defined broadly as everyday products and devices that can connect to the internet using wifi or Bluetooth, and include things like Amazon’s Echo speakers, Google’s Nest smart lock, and Furbo’s pet camera/treat dispenser. Mobile phones, tablets, and computers weren’t included.
Indeed, sales of smart devices increased 25 percent last year, according to marketing research firm IDC, and are expected to have double-digit growth for the next four years.
A March study from voice-tech blog Voicebot showed that even those who said they were “very concerned” about the privacy risks posed by smart speakers were only 16 percent less likely to own one than the general public.
“People who say they’re concerned with security will do a lot of very insecure things”
“People who say they’re concerned with security will do a lot of very insecure things,” Robert W. Proctor, a professor at Purdue University’s Department of Psychological Sciences, said. “It doesn’t match up very well.”
Even pinning down exactly what bothers people about smart devices is difficult, according to Liz Coll, head of digital change at Consumers International. “People use words like ‘creepy’ or ‘it’s like living in The Matrix,’” she said. “There’s not a shared language of what it feels like to be part of a technological society.”
Still, why would people buy and use devices in the presumed privacy of their homes if they don’t trust them? It’s complicated. Here’s what the experts have to say:
People don’t understand the extent of data smart devices are collecting
The amount of data that smart devices collect is vast, but what exactly they’re collecting varies from one device and terms of service to the next.
Consider an Amazon or Google smart speaker voice assistant. It knows where you’re located, what you buy, as well as your taste in music and movies. It knows when you’re home, what your voice sounds like compared to, say, your roommate’s — and, if you’ve paired it with other smart devices, some of what those devices are sensing. In short, it knows a lot about you.
Ostensibly, these data points are used to make your smart device experience better and more personalized. In the wrong hands, it’s a treasure trove of personal information.
“Most smart home devices give first-party vendors a view into the device’s location, performance, operating state, and the frequency which a user is interacting with it, and in what ways,” according to IDC senior analyst Adam Wright. “For third parties, it becomes a bit murkier,” he said, referring to, for example, what data voice assistant Alexa (third party, in this case) might know about the smart lightbulb (first party) it’s controlling.
Knowing when you turn on your lights or whether you do so with a switch or through a voice assistant might sound like pretty banal data to give up. But even anonymized data can be used with other troves of available information to figure out other personal details about you. The fear is not only that this information could fall into nefarious hands, but that it might be sold, or shared at all.
“I don’t think most people realize, even if you have an independent account where your privacy is pretty well protected that if people get multiple accounts they can figure out who you are,” Proctor said. “But trying to understand and convey that to people gets really complicated.”
Usually, the only way to figure out what these devices see and share is to read their terms of service.
“I find that the terms of service agreements are difficult to wade through/ambiguous most of the time,” Wright, an expert on smart devices, said.
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