Smart Homes Convenient, Rife With Data-Privacy Issues

By Christopher Adams

The convenience and novelty of smart homes are undeniable. However, the ability of these intelligent homes to undermine the privacy of homeowners is certainly real.

In 2018, 17 billion connected devices were in use globally, along with 7 billion IoT (internet of things) connected devices, according to IoT Analytics.

Security Today magazine also reported that more than 26 billion IoT devices were active worldwide last year.

Consumers should proceed with caution, according to VentureBeat, a digital publication that covers transformative technology.

Users needs to be aware of the risks in using such digital assistants as Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, which manage your home’s smart devices.  

“All of these devices are gathering, in some cases, pretty intimate data about us — even something as simple as when you come home, when you leave, when you go to bed, when you wake up,” Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of CyberScout, told Digital Privacy News.

“So, this is data that becomes very valuable to someone who’s either a burglar or a stalker,” he said.

Amazon: Privacy Is Critical

For its part, Amazon said its customers’ privacy and security are paramount in its approach to allaying smart-home consumers’ fears, a company spokesperson wrote in an email to Digital Privacy News.

IoT home devices — lamps, thermostats, vents, light bulbs, appliances and doors, among them — normally lack a digital footprint and are not commonly associated with the internet, unlike smartphones, laptops and tablets.

But when those IoT devices hook up with the internet, they can become portals for theft or unsolicited advertising.

“This is data that becomes very valuable to someone who’s either a burglar or a stalker.”
— Adam Levin, CyberScout data and identity firm.

“They’re designed to listen, they’re designed to at least send back information to manufacturers in order to make your experience more personalized and customized,” said Levin, whose company specializes in data and identity protection. 

However, if a device intercepts personal information — banking details, home addresses, for instance — it can be stored and transmitted, he noted. 

The Amazon spokesperson told Digital Privacy News that the company only will use customer data if it believed it could be utilized to deliver better value or efficacy while providing customers with control over the use of their information.

“To respect customer privacy and security, we offer customer control over smart-home features, never sell their smart-home data to third parties, and provide the ability for customers to manage their smart-home devices’ history through the Alexa privacy settings page,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Amazon further claims its reason for listening and gathering data is to enhance the user’s experience, said Ed Adams, president and CEO of Security Innovation, a Massachusetts software security-assessment and consulting company.

“You’re giving up the rights to a lot of your data just by using the product.”

— Ed Adams, Security Innovation consulting firm.

Relying on Cumbersome Language 

Adams doesn’t argue that customer experience is part of the equation for Amazon, but he emphatically stated that the information is being used for advertising without communicating that to the consumer in plain language.

Users, he said, are simply pointed to a webpage that is a new spin on the “reading-the-fine-print” concept.

“Who’s going to that webpage and reading it at all?” Adams asked. “And if you do, you’ll notice in there that you’re giving up the rights to a lot of your data just by using the product.”

He said people must take ownership of their data by becoming aware of what they’re giving up. 

Essentially, the question is whether smart-home consumers are going to be comfortable with their data being used or not. If so, then the onus is also on them to protect their privacy.  

“Government has not done enough,” Levin told Digital Privacy News. “Businesses have not done enough.

“And, there is now a shared responsibility that consumers have.”

Christopher Adams in a writer based in Texas.