The Privacy of Data: How Secure are We in our Smart Homes?

Walking to your front door as it magically opens is convenient. Commanding your smart speaker to dim the lights and play your favorite song adds to your comfort. And having your thermostat learn your daily routine so that it is able to control your heating and cooling system is efficient. What’s more, a device, such as Ring, can add to the security of your smart home. But in all the glory of automated home tech, can you feel safe and secure, knowing that your privacy is your own?

At BYSH we often discuss the security factor that comes into play with home automation from the standpoint of safety and protection from hacking. Yet, a thing most people overlook is the actual privacy of the data that the smart devices in your home often collect. A few years back, we’ve had the Chief Software Architect at Notion, Jordan Stone, talk to us about the topic of data security. But now, it’s time to revisit the topic from another perspective.

The iRobot Roomba Fiasco and Home Mapping Data

During the last few weeks one of the top new stories in the smart home industry sector was the iRobot Roomba mapping data fiasco. In an interview with Reuters, iRobot CEO Colin Angle shared some interesting insights. Most notably, he stated that since the introduction of Wi-Fi connected smart robot vacuums in 2015, the company has been collecting spatial data from the homes of its customers. The data itself is collected by Roomba products via their multiple sensors.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with the data collection process. As a whole, it helps the Roomba better understand how your home is laid out and eventually come up with the most efficient way to clean up your place. However, the issue comes when your personal data starts getting shared with other companies. And according to Angle, that’s just what iRobot is planning to do.

The ‘User Agreement’ That No One Reads

Before you get the pitchfork out of your backyard’s shack, you should know that iRobot is not playing the devil in this situation. First and foremost, the company clearly and openly states in the documentation that data is to be collected when using their products and services. In addition, they’ve added an “opt out” button, which a user can press at any time. And for the most part all companies do so. If you’ve noticed, whenever you install a new app or sign up for a new service, you usually get a ton of pop-ups about data collection. In a sense, you agree that you are informed.

And while there’s a humorous joke that no one reads the user agreement, you’d rarely come across and accept something you are not already aware of. That’s true!

National and international laws are put in place to protect the individual. Thus, in most countries some User Agreements and Terms of Service practices are often deemed unlawful. As a whole, an online agreement is put in place for the protection of both the user and the company behind a certain product or service. With that in mind, you shouldn’t be scared that you can sell your soul to someone by accepting an online agreement.

Yet, a user agreement does allow companies to tap into your private life. We are not legal experts and this should not be deemed as legal advice in any way, shape or form, but the general consensus is that if a company has made you aware of their practices, the agreement is not unlawful. As long as data privacy and protection laws themselves are not broken, the company has the right to collect your data. Yes, if the data collection is put in small text somewhere, you might have a legal case. But, if you’ve pressed “OK” multiple times on privacy pop-ups that inform you of said data collection, then a Roomba won’t be stepping over any legal boundaries, when mapping out your house.

The Dystopian Future of Data Collection

That’s all well and good. We’ve discussed numerous times that for the most part, when using smart home tech, you are giving away your privacy for comfort (e.g. in our Z-wave security piece). And that’s true. There’s no way around it. Even if you don’t use any home automation products, you’d still find yourself tackling data privacy issues. For example, your smartphone also collects data. You’d have to actively opt-out of each and every app that indulges in data collection, and the issue is that today everyone does so. Chances are, you’d have to give up on most of your apps, as the simple act of using them is an active agreement of privacy that you can’t opt-out of. By now, you probably think that if you have nothing to hide, you are all well and good, right? Well, that’s a double edged sword.

The AI Problem

First and foremost, there’s a growing concern about the current and future state of machine learning. Even if Elon Musk’s singularity predictions are wrong, AI is still extremely useful in data analysis. For the most part, if an AI has access to all of your phone calls and messages, chances are that in a few years time, it would be able to know each and every little thing about your daily routine, friends, family and more. Even today, Google’s AI is tracking the places you go. Though speculation, in the near future the company can use that data in combination with its Maps and Places information to understand where you like to go and what types of places you prefer to visit.

But it’s not just Google. Facebook, Apple, Amazon and probably every other tech company you can think of collects data. While just a few years back the huge problem for IoT was the data saturation and inability of companies to analyse the data properly, AI and machine learning solve that problem.

Google’s Deep Mind can teach itself what a Dog looks like by going through a few hundred thousand photos of Dogs in mere hours. In a similar manner, in the future, machine learning should be able to understand who you are better than you yourself. With all the data available from all different places, an AI should be able to create an on-point psychological profile of who you are .

Your habits, your routine, your likes and dislikes, your friends and their friends, on top of all of your personal information and preferences should be easily available in a neat little package for everyone with access to see, thanks to IoT and machine learning.

The Political Issue

Politics is not our strength and we don’t like to get into political debates. Even discussing Net Neutrality under the new U.S. administration is not that topical for us. Yet, in a grim dystopian scenario, imagine the AI profile we’ve just discussed being readily available to anyone in power. We’d like to think the world is a better place than 50 years ago, but if a dictator shows up, in any developing country, things will go from dystopian to down-right apocalyptic. You like the TV Show “Friends,” and your new dictator in power hates it? Off with your head! In mere seconds! Of course, this is a silly example, but you get the point.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel – The Utopia of Data Sharing

The media loves sensationalism, because it works. On top of that, people love being apocalyptic. And even if there’s a chance of the above happening, even if it does, it probably won’t be as grim as we imagine it to be. Yes, AI will probably know who you are and what you do, but chances are, this information will be used for good.

Personalize Everything

What if you could tell Alexa to do all of your chores? Better yet, what if the next time you ask Google Home to suggest a movie for you to watch, it responds with an actual movie you’d truly love based on your preferences? Imagine a world where you can sit in front of a speaker and talk with your AI assistant as it helps you deal with all your personal issues, depression and more. In an utopian scenario, the data that devices and smart home products currently collect on us will help shape our better future. Today, you don’t have to worry about leaving your lights on with smart lighting solutions. But imagine if all the products in your home work in your favor by increasing the energy efficiency, based on your routine and habits. What if you could turn your head to the TV as it magically switches on to what you’d like to watch, as the AI assistant in your home understands your mood and what you’d like to do. The possibilities are pretty much endless.

Ads. Ads, Everywhere! But that’s good?

Marketing is changing, as our society does. Today, inbound marketing is on the rise, because people are more vigilant towards snake oil advertising. And while most people are scared that AI will help target ads in such a specific manner that it will help companies take all of your savings in an instant, this probably won’t happen. Yes, there might be malware AIs that know your secret gambling addiction and slowly entice you to buy a product when you are emotionally incapable of making a proper decision. But what most fail to include in their analysis of the upcoming future is that we adapt. As individuals, as people and as a society, we adapt.

Scary Technology, Not-So-Scary Future

We learn, develop and thrive in a world of our own making. Yes, the technology we have around us does collect a ton of data that might be used against us. But this is just part of who we are. 50 years ago you could hire a private investigator, 25 years ago you could wire tap phones and 5 years ago it was easy to find someone based on their social media activity. Today and in the future, you’ll be able to know someone from their data in the cloud. In our previous pieces on the security of the smart home (e.g. in our best smart locks piece), we’ve discussed that for a burglar, it will be easier to pick an average lock than hack into your new one. Even though the comparison isn’t as straightforward, just as someone could invade your privacy in the past, they can do so today. As for the companies that collect your data, things are even easier to understand. A company uses that data to better itself and its products and services and to sell you more of that product/service, right? Well, if you are interested in the product/service in the first place, why be scared? You allow Netflix to use your data to make and suggest you better movies, right? Why not allow the Roomba to map your home? Even if they end up sharing the data, they will do so with companies that will make better furniture, suitable for your home or create innovative products and solutions that take advantage of the mapping of your home. The technology might be scary at first, but the future is not so scary.


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