Tech Giants Double Down on Smart Home Data Collection

Increased smart home data collection by smart hubs like the Amazon Echo and Google Home Assistant have privacy watchdogs raising the alarm. Questions abound about the quantity of personal data collected, and big tech’s inability to keep it secure. For some developers the convenience of the most popular of Silicon Valley’s smart home hubs don’t justify the cost to the consumer.

Smart Home Data Collection

It’s no secret that big tech companies like Amazon and Google collect data from their users. The problem is we don’t know how much data they collect or how they use it. Last year, Amazon and Google started requiring continuous status updates from devices connected to their smart home hubs. These automatic status updates allow Amazon and Google direct access to real time occupancy data. For example, when you ask Alexa or Google to turn on the lights they store that information in the cloud. Amazon and Google maintain that the reason for this change is to increase user convenience. However, consumers unknowingly pay a price for that convenience.

Amazon and Google smart home data collection leaves consumers little control over their privacy and data.

While Amazon insists it doesn’t sell personal data, that doesn’t mean they don’t profit from spying on their users. User data is an incredible resource for companies like Amazon and Google whose entire business model depends on knowing as much about their consumers as possible. For instance, when Amazon scanned users’ requests and noticed that users frequently asked Alexa the time, they designed an Echo Dot that includes a clock. Consequently, smart home developers began voicing concerns about Amazon and Google’s lack of transparency on how they use collected data. Those who have approached the tech giants about limiting constant data updates have been met with resistance. That is to say, Amazon and Google show no signs of slowing down when it comes to collecting your personal data.

Data Insecurity

The most concerning part of smart home data collection is that many tech giants struggle to keep that data secure. Just this year Checkpoint Research discovered a vulnerability in Amazon’s Alexa through which they accessed victims’ voice history and personal information. Unquestionably, smart hubs will remain a target for attackers looking to steal private or sensitive information. But it’s not just hackers that you have to worry about. We learned in 2019 that Amazon and Google pay employees to listen to voice recordings in the name of improving accuracy. Google only admitted to this fact after a Belgian broadcaster obtained 1,000 leaked voice recordings. Incredibly, around 150 of these recordings didn’t feature the wake word that activates Google assistant. This means that Google mistakenly stored private conversations, some containing very personal information, in the cloud.

The Cost of Convenience

The cloud enables smart home devices to easily communicate with each other, but that convenience comes at a price. The cost to users is a lack of control over who has access to their data and how it’s secured. If the past has shown us anything it’s that data in the cloud is vulnerable to leaks and hacks. This can be devastating when so much private information is stored there. This was the case in 2018 when Amazon mistakenly released voice data files to the wrong person. Chillingly, the files contained enough personal information to pinpoint the individual involved.

Smart home data collection vis-à-vis the cloud leaves many smart hub users vulnerable to attack.
Dr. Michael Veale’s thoughts on the using the cloud to store large amounts of personal data. Dr. Veale is a lecturer of digital rights and regulations at UCL Faculty of Laws at University College London

For those developers scared by big tech’s data collection and unsecured cloud computing there is finally an alternative. The Bestie Bot I is a cloud free machine that lets you seize control of your privacy and data. This IoT powerhouse is built to privately store data from your building and is totally customizable. While it comes with a software module to connect to a Phillips Hue Lighting Bridge already built in, and you can install custom modules to work with devices on your home network if you know how to use a standard web API.