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What You Need to Know About Smart Homes and Privacy

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Feb 26, 2020

Recently, as I was about to board a flight, the boarding agent came over the intercom and said that the airline would be trying out a new facial recognition technology. The airline advised that the new technology would expedite the boarding process. In a calm tone, she also quickly read a disclaimer that said that passengers could opt for a normal boarding process without relying on facial recognition if they chose. As I was waiting to board the plane, I began to think of the implications of new policies and procedures like these. Perhaps, the "benefit" of saving a few seconds during boarding didn't warrant the costs. The idea that a picture of my daughter, my wife, and I be uploaded into the cloud, where our faces and names could be hacked or sold to the highest bidder, was not, for us, a risk worth taking. As a result, we went to the end of the line and opted for a regular check-in. In doing so, we protected our privacy for the "cost" of having to wait a couple of extra minutes.

Over one-third of all households in the United States own a smart home device. Seventy percent of homeowners say they are considering purchasing another smart home device in the coming year. We often hear about how home automation can save us time and energy. However, privacy concerns are rarely part of the debate. In this short article, we look at some of the potentially invasive possibilities that come with home automation and offer a few suggestions for how homeowners can protect their privacy and confidentiality.

Lenovo Smart Home Products
Smart Home Products. Photo Credit: Lenovo

How Do Smart Homes Work? 

In recent years, tech companies have been able to produce many types of low-cost sensors. They can detect movement, moisture, temperature, and virtually any other biophysical changes in the immediate home environment. These inexpensive sensors are connected to household Wi-Fi networks and smart home hubs. This allows homeowners to "control" several elements of their home from a smartphone connected to a cloud-based service.

One leading industry expert says that "there are already 3.5 billion such sensors, and some experts expect the number to increase to trillions within the next decade." The idea that these devices and sensors allow for a more significant "control," however, might be overshadowed by some of the potential privacy and confidentiality concerns that come with our homes' automation.

What Are The Risks of Smart Home Automation? 

Smart home technologies might be able to save you time and money on your utility bills. However, what are some of the risks?

Smart Lock

Can Smart Home Devices Be Hacked?

A recent study by computer scientists at The College of William & Mary came to disturbing conclusions. It found that even "benign" smart home devices like a smart light bulb might be able to provide entry points for hackers. This is especially true if the devices are connected to a central app or smart home hub. Hackers continuously look for ways to extract confidential information about people they are targeting, and smart home devices provide a potential entry point.

Hackers Accessing Your Devices 

Consider the following example: A working parent uses a smart home sensor connected to a smart home security system. This sensor will alert their smartphone when the door is opened when their child is set to arrive home from school. This sensor obviously will create a sense of ease for the working parent, knowing that their child is safe at home. However, that same sensor could be hacked by people wanting to follow your children's movements and your family.

To name just one example, a family in Wisconsin was recently a victim of this type of violation. They reported that a hacker accessed their smart home system, turned up their home heating to ninety degrees, talked to them through a camera, and played vulgar music. Tech companies promise that their security systems are consistently updated. However, homeowners should also understand that hackers are similarly updating their invasive methods on an ongoing basis.

The Cloud

Do Smart Homes Spy On You?

Another risk of smart home devices is accumulating personal data that these devices collect and store on the cloud. There is an enormous amount of personal information floating around the internet. Artificial intelligence and machine learning advancement allow companies to access, revise, and extract information about many aspects of that personal information. 

iRobot Mop
iRobot Mop. Photo Credit: iRobot

For example, the iRobot Roomba, a robotic, Wi-Fi-connected vacuum cleaner, has been collecting spatial data from the homes of people who use this device. Essentially, when the robot is cleaning up the kitchen, it also sends information about your space to Roomba and the cloud. Tech companies might claim they only use this information to improve their products. Still, there is frighteningly little information regarding where that information is stored, whether it is or can be sold, and who has access to it.

Individual rights to privacy and confidentiality certainly lack in the legal spectrum, especially when faced with the onslaught of technological advances that rely on large amounts of collected data. For the time being, most people have no say in whether or not a company can collect and share their personal data collected via smart home devices. And of course, once that information is in the cloud, it can also be more easily accessed, used, or stolen by other entities.

Google Home Mini

What Is the Best Protection When Using a Smart Device?

Smart home technology might undoubtedly be useful in some instances. However, privacy, confidentiality, and security concerns are real and need to be considered. For starters, homeowners should avoid the temptation to automate everything in their homes. Avoiding the consumer impulse to purchase every new smart gadget is good for your economy and your privacy. A smart home sound system that is voice-activated, for example, provides essentially the same "service" as getting off the couch and pushing play on your computer screen.

Home automation devices do not necessarily need to be connected to a home Wi-Fi system. For example, a programmable thermostat not connected to a home Wi-Fi system can allow homeowners to reduce their overall heating and cooling loads without sacrificing their privacy. This device is controlled by the home's inhabitant and increases the heating and cooling schedule's autonomy over time. Using home automated devices that do not depend on Wi-Fi signals or smart home hubs is undoubtedly less intrusive to your privacy. However, it should be noted that some features, such as automatic detection of an empty house, won't be functional if the user has the app deactivated. To achieve the best possible energy reductions, the user might need to adjust the thermostat a little more often manually.

Horse and Buggy

Do We Need Smart Home Technology?

On a philosophical level, homeowners should be willing to question the "benefits" of technological advancements. Our society is completely captivated and entranced by technology. Undoubtedly, some technologies have certainly improved our lives and comfort levels. In smart homes, particular gadgets like smart thermostats can drastically reduce our homes' carbon footprint and energy demands. However, our propensity to blindly accept any new technological innovation that hits the market should certainly be open to criticism.

Amish people have a fascinating way of dealing with technology. Every year or two, the community comes together to debate which outside technologies they will admit into their communities and lifestyles. This community discussion looks honestly at the benefits that technologies might bring to the community. But it also considers what might be lost through the adoption of a specific technology.

For example, some Amish communities prohibit tractors' use (an important farming technology) because they understand that horse-powered farming methods are essential to their community. The reliance on horses creates numerous jobs for young men, reduces the erosion and compaction of their soils, and stimulates good care for the land.

Most of us will probably never be willing to go back to the horse and buggy, characterizing the Amish culture and communities. However, we should learn from their determinedness to carefully consider the benefits and drawbacks of new technology.


Finding a Balance With Technology in the Home

Smart thermostats might be one type of smart home technology minimally invasive to our privacy while offering substantial and tangible sustainability benefits. However, home automation and smart home technology, like any technology, should never be considered to be "inevitable." Instead, living a responsible and lifestyle requires determination to maintain our freedom and autonomy. Only thus will we make sound decisions regarding our privacy and our built environment's sustainability.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-25T01:46:02+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.