Smart Home Privacy: Keeping Your Data Safe

Smart Home Privacy

Waking Up on the Right Foot

Picture what life could be like in a truly modern, connected home.  The shades to your bedroom window part as your alarm gently rings you awake, at the very most comfortable exit point in your REM cycle.  The room temperature is geared just how you like it. Maybe you enjoy a light dose of quiet classical music, to bring in the morning. You walk into your kitchen--no slippers required, your vacuum did its work overnight.  In the kitchen, you’re greeted by a freshly brewed pot of coffee. Your refrigerator display indicates you’re out of creamer, so you use whole milk instead, and call for your virtual assistant to order more creamer for delivery.

When it comes to the benefits of smart home technology, I’ve only just described to you what’s possible before breakfast.  By connecting your devices and appliances to the cloud, you can put every corner of your home in conversation--receiving, sharing and outputting data in order to best serve you and your daily routine.  But of course, what is hugely convenient may also appear rightly intimidating. All this data is being collected…while you sleep? While you’re half-dressed in your own kitchen? Surely your home is the one place where you should be able to get away from all the mess of the modern world, and keep what’s yours to yourself.  No matter how fresh your coffee is in the morning, it’s simply not worth the cost of your privacy.

The question, then, must be: how can you modernize your home, while keeping your data safe?

How Smart Devices Work

In order to understand how your privacy may be affected by them, you first must understand how smart devices actually work--or, rather, why they work the way they do.

Smart home devices fall under what’s called the “internet of things”.  Just as people connect with each other over the internet, so too can “things” connect with other things, whether it be your phone, your security camera, or even city-wide traffic systems.  The effect of connecting things together is similar to the effect that the internet has on people. By using the internet you can gather data relevant to your job (Google), instantly communicate with other people anywhere in the world (Facebook), or produce something that will help others (through Etsy, Medium, or by building your own website).  

Similarly, connected devices can gather data, and communicate with one another, in order to produce the greatest benefit for us humans.  Your alarm clock knows the exact point at which waking you would cause the least amount of stress to your system, only because it’s tuned to pick up and collect data on your REM cycle.  By placing that alarm in conversation with your window shades, your speaker system, and your coffee machine, you’re allowing all of your devices to maximize their productive output.

Ultimately, connected devices must collect data about you in order to function.  An alarm clock unable to read and interpret information from your sleeping body is probably going to wake you up in the middle of that dream you’re having about playing for the New York Yankees.

However, data collection and data privacy are not the same thing.

How Companies Use Your Data

Data created is not data exposed.  A network of machines gathering information about your every move is utterly yours and yours alone, up until the point where any of that information is sent outwards, to devices outside of your home, and outside of your control.

Generally, there are two types of companies to look out for: those that use your data only to support the operation of your products, and those that additionally use your data as a source of advertising revenue.  Companies that aren’t so much in the business of advertising--like Samsung, Wink, Apple, and many others--stand to gain very little from selling products short on privacy. Upstart brands, in particular, may seek to make their stake in the market by selling privacy in a world short on it.

Broader companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon operate under a different paradigm.  Alexa and Google Home are but small parts of those companies’ much, much larger business infrastructures.  Information about your private life is of great value to Google’s advertisers. The more effective Google is at ad placement, the more money they can make from advertisers.  The more targeted the ads, the more effective they are. The more information they have on you, the more targeted those ads can be. Therefore, it only makes sense that Google would want to sniff you out for all you’re worth.

Likewise, Alexa’s sales price is just one way Amazon makes money off your purchase.  Think about what happens when you say: “Alexa, order coffee creamer”. From your perspective, you’re quickly and easily making a purchase.  From Amazon’s perspective, you’re making a purchase through their service that could have otherwise been made through any number of other avenues, like other websites, or your local supermarket or deli.  Plus, their algorithms now know you fit the profile of a typical coffee drinker. You can expect to see other products popular among coffee drinkers popping up the next time you visit Amazon.com. And the cycle continues.

You might wonder why advanced, multifaceted products like Alexa cost a fraction of what your other devices go for.  Well, here’s your answer. The price you pay for IoT products like these is not really in dollars, but in personal information.  Your privacy is, itself, a kind of currency.

What to Watch Out For

Privacy is an evolving matter; one that is and will continue to be a sticking point for customers in years to come.  Only in the past few years have government bodies begun to seriously address the issue, as with the GDPR legislation in Europe.  The U.S. is taking an even longer, slower road towards privacy in the age of big data, but progress is coming along.

No matter where you are, though, companies are required to disclose certain information about how they use the data their devices collect.  As a result, you’ll always have that one, easy way of finding out how a product you’re interested in buying operates: by checking its privacy policy.

Here are just a few keywords to look out for in a long, dry privacy policy:

  • Data Security will outline the cyber security measures the company employs to keep your data safe.  If you’re not well-versed in the subject, it may not mean much to you. Luckily your interests, as well as the interests of the company, are aligned here.
  • User Control/Edit/Delete describes the autonomy you have over how your account information is used.  Can you control, edit, or delete your data on their server? Here is where you have power over your own situation, so consider this the single most important section to understand after purchasing a product.
  • Third Party Sharing can really make your life frustrating.  Buying a product from one company and then receiving junk mail from a dozen others you’ve never heard of before.  Calls from area codes halfway across the country. These days, third-party sharing is a rather taboo practice among reputable brands.  If the company you’re buying from shares your information with third parties, without allowing you the ability to block it, that’s a sign you’re dealing with the wrong people.

Take a moment to read up the next time you’re shopping for a smart doorbell, security system, baby monitor, phone or anything else.

Waking Up Worry-Free

Data created is not data exposed.  Smart devices are perfectly confidential in the majority of cases, so there’s no excuse for writing off the entire industry on the basis of “big brother”.  At the same time, not every smart device is confidential, so there’s equally no excuse for wantonly tossing away your right to privacy. If the reward is peace of mind, surely the cost of taking a minute to read a company’s privacy policy is well worth it.

When you’re woken up in the morning at that very most perfect moment in your REM cycle, when your window shades part to let the sunlight in, and your speakers modestly introduce some light classical music to your ears, in a perfectly temperate room, as you step out into your kitchen to a fresh pot of coffee, and you sit down for your breakfast, the last thing you’ll want is to be worried about your privacy.  Luckily, with just a little bit of forethought, you won’t have to be.

Enjoy your morning.