This week I popped by my in-laws’ home to install an Amazon Echo Plus and some smart home gear. My plan was to see how easy it was for normal, mainstream consumers to set up and operate popular smart home devices. Instead I ran into a cold reality that the tech industry doesn’t seem to want to face.
Both my mother-in-law and my father-in-law were interested in the Amazon Echo Plus and the idea of turning on lights with their voice. I talked about music, timers, sports scores and even calling their granddaughter as part of my sales pitch to them, unconsciously mirroring Amazon’s actual sales pitch.
But once we started the setup, the hard questions began. Amazon, for example, asks to access your contacts to prep the calling feature. There’s no indication why Amazon wants or needs this access (or even how it works) on the screen asking for permission. So I had to explain that Amazon wanted access to their contacts so it could make calls, but also so it could see which of your contacts also had an Echo so they could make Echo-to-Echo calls to them.
For some people that’s pretty invasive. My in-laws said no. The Echo also wants to know where you live so it can offer commute times and accurate local weather. My in-laws provided a zip code but not their address. Yet, later when I was showing off the commute information, their address was already pre-populated which gave me a bit of a start.
It shouldn’t have. Of course Amazon knows their address. They are Prime customers that order from Amazon all the time. But still, it seems odd to offer them the “option” of adding their address details when Amazon already has them. Then I dealt with my mother-in-law’s primary question; was Alexa always listening?
I explained that the Echo was always listening for one of the four wake words, and when it heard one of them, the data following the wake word was sent to Amazon’s servers. I then showed them both how to see and delete their utterances. But my mother-in-law still seemed uncomfortable and joked about the NSA being able to turn on the Echo at any point in time to listen in.
I pointed out that her phone had that same capability as did her brand new smart TV in the same room. She knew about the phone, but the idea that her “smart TV” could turn against her or that it might listen in was news to her.
And here’s where I started getting angry. My in-laws’ had legitimate concerns about their privacy and data collection but they really had little choice in the matter by virtue of buying connected items. They are not alone. A Deloitte survey out this week noted that more than 40% of respondents agreed that smart home technology reveals too much about their personal life, and nearly 40% reported concerns that it allows one’s usage to be tracked.
The common argument here is that people who are worried about these things shouldn’t buy smart home products, but that’s like saying someone who is poor should just spend less and work more. It’s becoming impossible not to buy connected products. For example, all of Kenmore’s new appliances going forward will have connectivity. Same with many cars. Samsung’s TVs are all smart. This is happening because the advantages of collecting customer usage data, device data and more are impossible for any company to ignore.
But as the nature of durable goods and consumer products changes, consumer rights are not keeping up. Consumer education is not keeping up. And while I might have no problems with Amazon or Google collecting all of my data, I do feel a qualm when I think about some of the less experienced companies out there grabbing my information. Do they have the wherewithal to protect it? So far the answer is a resounding no.
Do those companies understand the implicit compact they make with me when they collect my data with regards to law enforcement, or will they hand my data over to the government without a warrant? Do they recognize that clusters of my data and metadata can be used to identify me and some of it may be sensitive to me?
Tech companies have been thinking about this for more than a decade. In some cases they fight on behalf of consumers to prove they are trustworthy stewards of their data and in others they hand it over with nary a debate. As the ability to grab more and more data becomes a business imperative, our government is seeking more and more ways to access it–legally and illegally.
So while it’s unlikely my in-laws will be targeted by the government, there are plenty of people who don’t have that privilege. Human rights lawyers, activists, journalists and others could see a future where their washing machine betrays them. Other than a cursory talk about reading the lengthy and complicated terms of service (which no one does) and telling the government to avoid regulations because it could hurt innovation, there’s little discussion about those who want to opt-out of current connected technology.
But there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable, and dragging them along with us without more discussion, better regulations and more active punishment for those who don’t protect consumer data feels like an abandonment of a swath of society. For now, people like my in-laws won’t buy fancy smart home devices because of their fears. Eventually, they will purchase products that have the potential to gather more information than they feel comfortable sharing.
It’s up to manufacturers and government to address those concerns rather than roll over them. As an early adopter of all of these things, I am aware of what’s happening, but not everyone is. And not everyone wants to live the way I do. They should have that choice and the knowledge to intelligently make that choice.