In today’s world, we are constantly looking for ways to make life easier, tasks quicker, and our days more “productive.” And sometimes, we tend to be impressed with the sophisticated look of smart-home automation, forgetting that all that glitters isn’t gold. In fact, a 2019 study, “More than Smart Speakers: Security and Privacy Perceptions of Smart Home Personal Assistants,” proved that owners of smart home personal assistants have an incomplete understanding of what data the devices collect, where the data is stored, and who can access it. So, before you invite real-life J.A.R.V.I.S. into your home, I’d like you to consider a couple of things.
To Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
There are always two sides to a coin. So, allow me to give credit where credit is due first. Smart tech is not the devil that it is sometimes made out to be in mainstream media. In fact, it presents so many benefits for so many people that it would be unethical not to mention them. Here are the main ones:
- Convenience: Technological appliances with remote capabilities simplify everyday tasks (e.g., adjusting the lights, volume, or temperature in a room). In addition, they empower aging individuals or those with physical disabilities to lead independent lives in their homes.
- Energy Efficiency: It introduces energy efficiency into the residence (e.g., automated thermostats, lighting controls, etc.). As a result, your environmental impact and your bills decrease.
- Safety and Security: Many internal and external security solutions (e.g., door and window sensors and a doorbell camera) can be monitored remotely via a security company or the local emergency departments.
- Home Value and Insurance Incentives: Smart thermostats, smart smoke detectors, and home security systems increase a home’s overall value. Plus, many insurance providers reduce homeowners’ premiums because it minimizes damage and lowers the number of claims a policyholder will file.
The Dark Side of Smart-Home Automation
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however. There are some serious aspects of smart-home automation that you need to consider before installing it. And even if you already did, there is always time to disconnect your home if you wish. The aim here is not to vilify an inanimate object incapable of independent thinking but to highlight how it can become a tool for real villains.
Spies are the ears and eyes of Princes
Not to sound very dystopian, but with smart-home automation, we are looking at a “Black Mirror” future through the lens of either one of its optimistic episodes, “San Junipero,” or one of its more skeptical and disturbing ones, “Hated in the Nation.” Unfortunately, your devices are indeed spying on you.
Intelligent devices collect a wealth of information about their users. In the end, smart security cameras and smart assistants are cameras and microphones collecting video and audio data about your presence and activities. Smart TVs, for instance, use cameras and microphones to spy on users, smart lightbulbs track your sleep and heart rate, and intelligent vacuum cleaners recognize objects in your home and map every inch of it. Sometimes, this surveillance is blatantly marketed as a feature.
Manufacturers typically guarantee that only automated decision-making systems, not humans, will have access to your data. However, this is only sometimes the case. Amazon employees, for example, listen to Alexa conversations, transcribe and annotate them, and then feed them into automated decision-making systems.
I’ll Manually Limit Them Then
Good Luck! Even limiting automated decision-making systems’ access to personal data can have unintended consequences. Any private data shared over the internet is vulnerable to hackers worldwide, and few consumer internet-connected devices are incredibly secure. Once on the internet, forever on the internet.
The Potential Enabler
The following segment contains sensitive content, including mentions of domestic violence (DV). If this topic is triggering, please jump to the “Food for Thoughts” segment.
Although there are numerous ways for abuse and control to manifest in the home, technology allows abusers to control, harass, and stalk their victims in new ways. The mobile phone, in particular, can be used to track and monitor the activity of a partner or child without their knowledge or consent. Are you familiar with Apple’s air tag? It is a godsend for people with ADHD but a nightmare for victims of DV. People, primarily women, were finding ones that didn’t belong to them on their person (i.e., bags, cars, etc.).
Safe at Home
The world was forced inside when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And while some people thrived under those new circumstances, a tragically large portion of the population was living their worst nightmare: trapped inside with their abuser(s) with no actual contact with the outside world. Over the years since the outbreak, our homes have become increasingly intelligent. They were initially invented for convenience, but not all humans are friendly behind closed doors.
What’s Supposed to Protect You…
The Internet of Things has the potential to transform how this type of technology-enabled abuse can occur, with an increasing number of devices in our homes capable of gathering data about movements and daily behavior. Internet-connected video doorbells and cameras allow the monitoring of someone from anywhere on the planet. Sensors on doors can detect when someone leaves the house, and smart bulbs in lights can track their movements between rooms. Internet-connected locks can limit movement into specific spaces or even prevent people from leaving their homes. Voice-controlled virtual assistants can provide a detailed breakdown of asked questions, search history, and personal data, easily causing conflict in relationships. Surveillance can quickly turn into active stalking, and what was previously invisible becomes a tangible sense of threat or a physical confrontation. Too often, heated exchanges can turn violent.
It Happened before; It Will Happen Again
Retired Darren Laur, a Victoria police sergeant, is the chief training officer at White Hatter, a company that teaches internet safety and digital literacy. He claims the company assisted a woman whose ex-partner would remotely control her smart home.
“During the summer, he would turn the heat up, and during the winter, (he) would turn the air conditioning on. He could turn the power on open doors and windows, all remotely because the home was a smart home.”
If there’s anything that we, as humans, hold dear, it is our autonomy, our right to self-governance. As such, as a user, it is vital to make an informed decision by understanding the trade-offs between privacy and comfort when buying, installing, and using an internet-connected device. Would you let a complete stranger into your home? You need to know them well enough to trust that they don’t mean you harm. You should apply the same principle to Smart home automation. Read the fine print and understand what data it collects. In the best-case scenario, your thermostat tracks the weather to keep your home at an optimal temperature. Worst and deadly case scenario, you find yourself trapped in the prison that once was your home. Be careful, be vigilant, and be smart about your smart tech.
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