Is Your Smart Home Spying on You?

Today, I have a bit of a different post to share.  A recent Gizmodo article uncovers the volume of data your Smart Home shares with the manufacturers, and calls into question just how useful a Smart Home actually is. So, is our privacy further under attack?

A couple of months back, Kashmir Hill of Gizmodo, undertook a little experiment.  She kitted her apartment out with a whole bunch of Smart Home kit, and -with the help of a colleague- installed a custom router to monitor all her internet activity.  That router was able to capture the full extent to which all the Smart devices in her home were talking back to the manufacturers.

Article: "The House That Spied On Me" (Gizmodo):

The results -needless to say- were rather alarming.  An almost constant stream of data was being sent back to manufacturers, everything from requests for updates, to telemetry data, through to data on what shows she was watching on her Smart TV.  The conclusion is obvious; with technology moving into more and more areas of our daily lives, our privacy is under attack.

An even more alarming conclusion (for me at least), was that Smart Home technology is more annoying than useful!

Ultimately, I’m not going to warn you against making everything in your home smart because of the privacy risks, although there are quite a few. I’m going to warn you against a smart home because living in it is annoying as hell.

So, let's address a few points here.  First, Privacy.  Sure, this is one to be concerned about.  In the main, we have to ask ourselves whether we trust the manufacturers with our data.  In some cases, manufacturers might only be interested in telemetry data because they genuinely just want to make their products better.  In other cases however, they may want to share or even sell that data to someone else.

Personally, I'm far more concerned about the latter, than the former.  However this is of course a personal thing, and you may feel differently. Another area of concern, is the security of all this telemetry data.  If an outside attacker can incercept it, they too will have access to data we might prefer is kept private, even if we accept it's being shared with the manufacturer.

I see two areas that need to be addressed;

First, we need a level of trust with manufacturers.  The 'you don't have to use it' attitude just doesn't wash anymore.  I shouldn't have to just accept a wildly invasive service agreement in order to use these products.  Presenting to me that my only other option is not to use it is just a massive slap in the face, and almost leans towards a 'give us your data or else' attitude.  It doesn't encourage trust.

Second, better regulation.  In the EU, we're getting the new 'General Data Protection Regulation' (GDPR).  That's going to give people a lot more control over their personal data.  In light of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica news, I think we can probably expect other countries adopting similar regulations too.

Moving on a step, the Gizmodo article suggested that the Smart Home is - basically - more trouble than it's worth.  Obviously, being a Smart Home enthusiast, I'm going to disagree!  However, I wanted to explore this in a little more detail, and there are a few areas I picked up on when reading the article.

First, was this idea that the Smart Home doesn't integrate very well.  Getting all the different devices to work together was hard, or impossible in some cases.  This I can certainly see.  There are a myriad of Smart Home products out there, and they don't always integrate too well.  Even with 'middle man' solutions like hubs or smart speakers, you don't always get great results.

To this, I would say that it's better to focus on products that actually don't need much in the way of integration.  With the Smart Home products I've installed so far, for the most part they work stand-alone pretty well.  To the extent that I've added integration, it's been more as an experiment as opposed to a key feature.  In many cases, the 'advantages' integration might give me have given overlapping features.  For example, it's possibly using IFTTT to have my lights turn on at sunset - but, Philips Hue already has this feature built in.

Secondly, another problem the article touched on, was the idea that the Smart Home nags you, with alerts and notifications that result in information overload. They give an example of a robot vacuum cleaner bombarding them with messages when the devices was full, stuck, or just plain broken.

Again, I can see how that might be an issue, but Smart Home overload is more than likely going to result in information overload.  Sadly the article doesn't give a complete inventory of what products were installed, but going so far as having a smart bed, and a smart coffee maker might be an example of going too far!

This brings me to the third point the article picked up on - the idea that the Smart Home is just plain overcomplicated.  Numerous apps to setup, devices plugged in everywhere - yuck!  Again however, I think this can be avoided by not going too far.

I myself have focussed on four key areas; Lighting, Heating, Entertainment, and Security.  In this regard I can double down on areas where there are genuine benefits to be had.  Does a Smart Coffee maker or a Smart Bed offer real benefits?  I'd need a lot more convincing than I would for Smart Heating and Lighting.

In summary, reputable manufacturers, and a focus on what you need for your smart home (and not just buying everything that has the word 'Smart' prefixed to the product!), is a much better way to go.  Oh, and if you're outside the EU - prod your government to enforce better data rules, hopefully it will improve your privacy!