Throughout the holiday season, we’ve seen the commercials while we tried to mind our own business watching TV and gorging ourselves, as is the American holiday tradition. An inexplicable happy and attractive couple, probably wearing expensive sweaters, whose lives are made so much easier with the help of a new metal box that sits on the counter.
With the help of the Facebook Portal, now they can video chat with Grandma – it practically saved her life! People are free from being held hostage by the extraneous act of flipping a switch – “Alexa, turn off the lights!”
More and more people are embracing the convenience of so-called “smart devices,” such as the Facebook Portal, Google Home, and Amazon Echo, but those like Hayley Tsukayama, a legislative activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, foresee a problem with all the data that these devices collect in your home.
“There are basically no laws in the U.S. protecting our privacy,” Tsukayama, who used to cover consumer technology for the Washington Post, said. “You really have to trust the companies.”
A worry by some consumer technology experts is how corporations can monitor the daily habits of their customers – what they shop for, when they are home, and what their interests are – in order to further their interests in a process called data mining.
Similar in the way that a search engine may notice that you research a particular product and then deploy advertisements related to it through an algorithm, what’s to stop the same from happening when you tell your Google Home to play Creedence Clearwater?
“The information that you have in your home is obviously very intimate,” Tsukayama said. “They do get a great deal of information about you and can extrapolate a lot [about you].”
With Amazon, you can purchase an Echo Speaker or Echo Show that can listen to requests and do video calls. A Ring doorbell can see who enters and exits your home and when they do it. You can even install an Alexa-enabled Christmas tree. That’s a lot of data that could be collected.
But what’s the harm? If someone isn’t concerned with companies selling them advertisements and the Ring doorbell seems cool, why should they have any worry?
“If you are aware and okay with the implications and want [a smart device] for your home, I understand that,” Tsukayama said. “But to buy them as gifts, you take away some of that agency of what’s collected from your own living room. They’re a bad gift.”
There also isn’t a clear definition of whether law enforcement can access the information recorded by home devices. In 2019, a New Hampshire judge ordered that Amazon turn in recordings made at the home where a double-homicide took place. The company declined to release the data.
“The thing that worries me about the Echo is the history of Amazon’s behavior,” Tsukayama said. “They often launch things as test balloons, and then they convert it later into something they can use for advertising or building consumer profiles.”
Tsukayama also expressed worry about Facebook, which has a long history of using its users to expand profit margins.
Some legislators at the state level are now getting involved. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) took effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Under the new law, companies must disclose to their state consumers what personal data is being collected, if it is sold and to whom, and will allow people to decline such transactions.
So before you buy that doohickey that Kermit the Frog seemed to like so much, remember that someone might be using his conversations with Miss Piggy to sell him a different brand of toothpaste.