Google has once again courted controversy by invading the privacy of its customers. By now, it is fairly clear that home assistant devices like Amazon Echo’s Alexa and Google Home are listening to you at all times; that is how they detect the voice activated “wake words” that are supposed to activate them. Google recently revealed that one of its other devices was capable of listening to the noises in your house – even though the company didn’t alert anyone that it contained listening equipment. The Nest Secure home alarm system, which launched in September 2017, comprises a series of motion sensors placed around the home plus a box used to manage the network – and, apparently, microphones. The company recently announced it was upgrading the equipment to enable a voice “helper” program, inadvertently revealing that it contained a microphone, although none was listed on the product specifications. “The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part,” claimed a Google spokesperson.
Tony Evers (D), who took up the mantle as governor of Wisconsin in January, spent his campaign collecting data and using it to push political ads. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, Evers’ team used an “electronic fence” to capture the phone data (including unique device ID numbers) of guests in attendance at a state Democratic Party meeting. This data was used to “follow the devices home,” where the team could gather more information from other technology the phones connected to, including laptops, computers etc. They then used the personal information obtained to create profiles and “micro-target” campaign ads based on individual preferences.
During the 2016 elections, smart-televisions were used to collect user information, which was then sold to campaigns that could design targeted ads according to a household’s viewing habits – what will 2020 hold? Political pressure or lobby groups are also able to buy this information to target individuals; an anti-abortion group built digital “fences” to track people who had visited abortion clinics and target them with ads to persuade them not to terminate their pregnancies. The organization was legally forced to stop the practice in 2017, but what other lobbyists could be manipulating unsuspecting members of the public with similar methods?
The word “smart” has such good connotations, it’s hard to resist – anything smart must be sure to help us in our daily struggles to get through life unscathed, but it seems that any household object with that word in its name has spying capabilities as well. If it’s smart enough to make your life more convenient, it’s also smart enough to track your choices and pass that information on for further use. Some may feel the trade-off is worth it, some that their devices are too valuable in their daily lives, while others remain convinced that they are not so easily manipulated. Each individual is responsible for finding the balance with which they are comfortable – but one piece of advice is simply to consider carefully every piece of “smart” technology you bring into your home.