Smart Home Devices and Data Privacy

Last week an American judge in Dover New Hampshire ruled  that those investigating the murders of two women can examine recordings made by an Amazon Echo speaker with the Alexa voice assistant. Prosecutors involved in the case believe that the home speaker system which recognises voice control has recorded evidence of the death of one of the women. The instances of home devices being used as evidence of their surveillance capabilities is an uncomfortable reality consumers are faced with as the Internet of Things (IoT) propels us into a smart future.

Smart Home Devices and Data Privacy


Tech heavyweights Google, Amazon and Facebook are baying for consumers this Christmas, to purchase one of their relatively inexpensive digital assistants. The assistants, connected to the internet and ‘awoken’ with a simple phrase, for example, for Google’s home device, ‘Ok, Google’, provide help with everything from playing music, connecting with home lighting systems and ordering pizza. However, experts argue that consumers are not fully informed as to the privacy implications of using a digital assistant in the home.

‘Smart’ devices are increasingly saturating the market as product developers utilise AI (Artificial Intelligence) to ensure they dominate sales. The automated intelligent home is marketed as a positive fusion of family friendly enhanced productivity. In the U.S. market alone, smart home devices like digital assistant speakers, smart thermostats and home security products is forecast to be worth nearly 1.3 billion by 2022.

This year journalist Kashmir Hill presented a TED talk on how she had turned her home into a smart home for a two month experiment, with over 18 internet-connected devices tasked with the challenge. While conducting the experiment she noted that her Amazon Echo smart home device connected to its servers every three minutes. Gartner analyst, Werner Goertz notes that the retail giant wants to “sell (to users) its content, services or products-24 hours a day” and for owners of Amazon smart home devices, (development has already begun experimenting with sponsored Alexa ads), this is the ultimate end-goal. Patent applications submitted by both Amazon and Google highlight their intent to target more specifically home device users. Amazon wish to bypass the need to use a ‘wake’ word to alert the device in favour of constant listening which will allow the device to suggest more aggressively products home owners might need. Google on the other hand wish to push more specific advertising by monitoring inferences, for example, humidity, temperature and light levels, which it can use to gauge when users are active or asleep. Then the device, for example, can then prompt home owners to buy kitchen utensils when cooking.


After her smart home experiment, Hill told her TED2018  audience that, “You will own the device. But the company will own your data”. Smart devices raise the question of a surveillance economy in the age of IoT, not just economic driven surveillance. Requests made to Google and Amazon smart home devices are forwarded to servers which is where that data remains unless users actively delete each request manually or the entire home device history. Furthermore, data from home device owners that is stored on the servers cloud, can potentially be compromised by a cyber-attack. This would leave users in a vulnerable position.

If future patents are realised, Alexa and Google Home may not need wake words to alert their listening abilities. Digital assistants will increasingly take on more duties and this may encourage home owners to feel more comfortable with enabling this ‘always on’ mode. This will signal a catastrophic invasion of privacy within the home, where data can be mined 24/7.


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