How tech giants persuaded us to buy products that track us at home


George Orwell’s classic novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” warned us of a dystopian future where mass surveillance and spying are rampant, with all information flowing to an all-seeing, omnipresent figure called “Big Brother.”

But Orwell never imagined that consumers would invite Big Brother into their homes.

The last 10 years have seen the rise of internet-connected security cameras, smart speakers, doorbells, light bulbs, thermostats, vacuums and baby monitors from tech giants including Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Smart home devices have seen steady sales growth each year since 2016, according to market research firm IDC, which began tracking the category that year. The firm projects the devices to continue selling at a rapid clip in 2019 and over the next four years. Smart speakers and security cameras are among the most popular category.

This means consumers in this decade have filled their homes with sensors, cameras and microphones. But they have few tools to control how and when these devices collect images, conversations or any other data about them, and few laws effectively restrict how this data can be used.

Welcome, Alexa

Smart home devices weren’t invented in the last decade. Tech companies have been trying to push home automation since the 1990s or earlier.

But the smartphone revolution led to rapid miniaturization of technology and a rapid decrease in pricing. That paved the way for the so-called “internet of things”: the idea of embedding chips, sensors, cameras and network connectors in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. IoT applications took off among businesses first but failed to resonate with consumers for many years.

At the same time, advances in artificial intelligence made it easier and cheaper for computers to understand and respond to voice commands.

These trends came together in 2014, when Amazon launched its Echo device with its digital assistant, Alexa. It became a cultural phenomenon as sales took off, and Amazon soon expanded its lineup of voice-activated devices beyond the smart speaker to things like wireless earbuds and microwaves. Amazon said in January it has sold more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices, while a separate report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners found Amazon’s Echo controls 70% of the smart speaker market.

An Amazon Echo Dot device

Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Voice-activated devices created a much more compelling reason for users to allow tech giants into their homes. A 2018 study from NPR and Edison Research found 64% of participants purchased a smart speaker specifically to control other smart home devices.

For many, the convenience of asking their smart speaker to turn on the lights, lock the door or open the blinds became too appealing to pass up, kicking off an arms race among companies to integrate their AI assistants in as many smart home products as possible.

Suddenly, smart home devices weren’t just experiments in research labs or prototypes that “early adopters tinkered with,” said Florian Schaub, a University of Michigan professor who has conducted research on consumer attitudes around digital assistants. Today, smart speakers, locks and thermostats have become as easy to use as the smartphone.

“You can go into a big box store and buy lots of and lots of smart home connected devices that just function and don’t require much technical expertise,” Schaub said. “It has become a big business and market for many companies.”

Surveillance capitalism

As sales grew, tales of privacy nightmares grew with them.

A 2017 murder case in Arkansas ignited a debate around whether data from smart home devices should be allowed as evidence in court after police asked Amazon to turn over information from the suspect’s Echo. IRobot‘s Roomba vacuums raised concerns of data sharing after CEO Colin Angle discussed the possibility of asking users for permission to share maps of their homes with tech companies.

In 2018, users were unnerved when Amazon’s Alexa started laughing at them unexpectedly and when a stranger hacked into a Google Nest camera and started talking through it to a Houston woman’s infant son.

In 2019, users learned that people working for Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple were listening to their conversations. Representatives from Amazon and Microsoft said the companies review a small percentage of deidentified users’ voice recordings and that they’ve introduced new tools to give users greater control over their interactions with digital assistants. A spokesperson for Google pointed to the company’s privacy page, in which it said it has made efforts to reduce how much Google Assistant data it collects. Facebook and Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In another case this year, a poorly protected Nest camera allowed a hacker to spout fake nuclear bomb threats at a California woman. Nest also attracted criticism after it failed to disclose a built-in microphone in the Nest Secure home security system. Then there was the revelation that Amazon’s Ring division supplies police departments with footage from its security cameras, often without a warrant.

In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said attacks like the nuclear bomb threats were a result of credential stuffing, which occurs when a bad actor uses stolen information to access poorly secured accounts. The spokeswoman added that the company is introducing new Nest security features in the coming weeks.

A Ring spokesperson said the company has taken steps to limit how much information is shared with police departments from the Neighbors app, which lets users post photos and videos of crime activity in their neighborhood.

From the start, privacy advocates have warned of the dangers associated with these devices, not just because they’re embedded with cameras and microphones but because of the vast troves of data they routinely gather.

Devices like an Amazon Echo, Google Home or Amazon Ring security camera can track where you go, how many people live in your household, what your interests are and what you’re buying. The companies say that detailed information is often used to improve the user experience by reducing pain points like a wrong answer from the Google Assistant, or adding helpful suggestions, such as local traffic alerts based on your schedule.

Analysts say one of the many places Apple can still succeed is in smart home technology, like the Nest, a brand of Google that consists of smart home products, such as thermostats, smoke detectors and security systems including smart doorbells and smart locks. Ironically, the Nest brand name was originally owned by Nest Labs, co-founded in 2010 by former Apple engineers.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

But some privacy activists and experts are concerned about the rise of so-called surveillance capitalism, in which tech companies treat private interactions as raw data to predict behaviors. The laws governing how tech companies use the information are weak, particularly in the U.S., and enforcement often amounts to a slap on the wrist, with fines that are tiny compared with the tech giants’ overall revenues. If the data is poorly secured and gets into the hands of a bad actor, suddenly strangers and criminals could have access to a wealth of personal information — far beyond email addresses and internet passwords.

In the past, users might have thought they were just a “cog in the machine” whose individual activity went unnoticed, but recent privacy failures have proven otherwise, said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

“Users have learned that they are of particular interest to these companies,” King said.

The privacy failures have not inspired people to dump their Echos and Google Homes en masse.

Instead, some consumers have adjusted how they use the devices. Some have also adopted what King calls “strategies of resistance,” like using camera covers for extra privacy or changing their device settings to limit data collection.

Additionally, many consumers don’t understand how much data these devices collect. Others are unhappy with how smart devices monitor and track them, but they’re resigned to the fact that they have little control over the process.

“As a consumer, you can either use these technologies and benefit from the convenience, or you can opt out entirely due to privacy concerns,” Michigan’s Schaub said. “There’s very little opportunity to engage somewhere in the middle.”

Calls for more control

In response to the privacy blunders in recent years, many consumers have tried to educate themselves on exactly what these devices are collecting.

Often, they’re discovering this is impossible.

Terms of service agreements are lengthy and time-consuming to parse through, while much of the language used is too dense to understand. It’s unrealistic to expect that users are capable of managing every interaction they have with their devices, especially since much of that data is transferred off their device and to the cloud, where users have little say on what happens next.

“Even those of us who are fully technically capable and have the time, understanding and willpower to make it a priority, those agreements are one-sided agreements,” said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, internet security technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If the agreement says we will share your usage information with third-party partners, I know what that means, but that doesn’t mean I consent to it.”

Tech companies have taken some proactive steps in light of the consumer outrage around privacy. Many have become more explicit about how they use and retain sensitive information, including Nest, which issued a plain-language document detailing its “commitment to privacy in the home.” Others created new tools for users to manage and delete their data, such as the command “Alexa, delete what I just said.”

Ultimately, experts say users and government officials should not be satisfied with tech companies’ attempts to regulate themselves.

Within the last year, regulators have stepped up their scrutiny of tech companies’ data collection. The Senate has gotten closer to establishing a federal privacy law, which could require companies to clearly disclose their privacy policies. Lawmakers have hauled tech executives to the Hill to face questioning about data collection and privacy, while the Federal Trade Commission has handed down privacy-related fines to Facebook and Google’s YouTube this year.

Even if regulators do enact sweeping privacy legislation, consumers will still need to be careful about what kinds of smart devices they introduce in their home.

“This is going to be a very frustrating, nearly daily continuous problem for the public, both in the U.S. and around the world,” said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center of Digital Democracy. “Tech companies will continue to push the envelope in terms of data collection.”



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