Smart Home is a Home that’s always spying on you

It is ironic that we pay good money to buy and install devices that steal our privacy and sense of identity. We complain about Facebook’s ill-effects on society, but have no problems leaving digital footprints by excessive use of the service. We love Alexa, but we don’t stop and wonder what is the end game here? What impact will friction-free ordering have on our consumption. We buy smart devices, and never ever think that they are the spy in the house of life. 

Gizmodo writers Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu decided to take a closer look at the data that comes out of a San Francisco apartment and the story it tells about the resident. What you will learn is nothing short of stunning and astounding. Hill, who used her apartment and her family as guinea pigs, wrote:

Getting a smart home means that everyone who lives or comes inside it is part of your personal panopticon, something which may not be obvious to them because they don’t expect everyday objects to have spying abilities.

This is no different than how we have forgotten any civility around photography and capturing photos of absolute strangers without permission. Smart home goes a step further.

Here are a few things I learned from the article.

  • Netflix encrypts streams but it doesn’t encrypt images, hence it is easy to find out shows being recommended to the viewer. (My comment: this is as valuable as the stream itself, because it allows to create a viewing profile of the viewer, which when correlated with other metadata, such as browsing habits can allow advertisers to hyper-target the household.)
  • Hulu sends its traffic unencrypted and hence third parties can track people’s viewing habits. (I once called this company a ClownCo. Turns out, I was right.)
  • Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot are in constant communication with Amazon’s servers, sending a request every couple of minutes, even when microphones are off and Alexa isn’t in “awake” mode. (Okay, so you really want this in your apartment? I know I don’t.)
  • Like it was reported yesterday, Smart TVs are the most porous of all smart devices, leaking data (intentionally in many cases) that allow for further targeting. (My comment: why are we not asking these questions from smart TV makers. I am never bringing shit like Vizio into my apartment, ever.)

Overall, my takeaway is that the smart home is going to create a new stream of information about our daily lives that will be used to further profile and target us. The number of devices alone that are detected chattering away will be used to determine our socioeconomic status. Our homes could become like internet browsers, with unique digital fingerprints, that will be mined for profit just like our daily Web surfing is. If you have a smart home, it’s open house on your data.

The question now is — should we roll over and embrace the surveillance society and be monetized, or do we have some capabilities to fight back? I for one, refuse to use Alexa and Google Home in my apartment. I don’t trust them, much like I don’t trust Facebook. Apple seems to be doing a good job of keeping its nose clean, but who knows when they come under pressure from “activist” investors.

Regardless, read this story. It is fantastic, public service journalism at its finest. Well done Kashmir & Surya.

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