Smart Houses Make Me Feel Dumb – Or At Least, Unsafe
Last week, Amazon announced its latest revolutionary product, Amazon Key. This smart lock service will allow Amazon couriers to drop off packages inside customers’ houses by letting themselves unlock the door when no one is home. The concept works with a one time electronic pass code sent to the courier’s smart phone. A camera is set up by the entrance allowing the customer to watch the courier enter, drop the package and leave. The door is then locked automatically and the entry code is terminated.
Add Amazon Key to the ever growing list of “smart” features connecting our houses to automate our lives. Alexa, which connects to Amazon Echo, listens to our every word and is plugged into all internet capable appliances and devices and control every feature in our homes. Google and Apple have similar products. Alexa, OK Google and Siri can, through their advancing artificial intelligence, anticipate your wants and needs as you develop routines in the home and order products. I don’t use these products, but my iPad and iPhone know what time of day I general access apps or travel to the office or other locations and these apps are ready to open or give me preferred driving directions each day. Alexa and company offer to order from your regular grocery list, play your favorite songs and water your lawn on a regular schedule in running your household.
The smart house and its AI are certainly growing in popularity. But many people, like me, are resistant to the change. It’s not that I don’t understand the technology and how it could simplify my life or how to use it. I do (but, I definitely don’t want to be bothered re-configuring my house to connect every electronic device I own). More importantly, I don’t think it’s safe. Do we really want Amazon, Google or Apple listening to everything that we say in our homes? I will admit that I don’t understand how Alexa “turns off” the “passive” listening capabilities so as not to capture every spoken word. But clearly every spoken word is heard until someone says “Alexa”, or “Ok Google” or “Hey Siri”.
Moreover, there will come a point in the future when law enforcement will seek to gain access to an Alexa like device or the cloud’s records of the conversations spoken at home. Each of the companies insist that no records are kept of any conversations. We have to trust that this is true. Are we all certain that every hard drive or cloud drive involved is absolutely clear of all our conversations? And, how far will the courts go to protect our rights of privacy in this regard? The question that will have to be addressed is that we knowingly brought these devices into our home so did we willingly give up some expectation of privacy and if so, did are our conversations discoverable in civil and criminal proceedings? Is this risk worth the conveniences that Alexa might bring to your home? Where a valid basis for a search warrant might exist, that warrant might now extend to copies or transcripts of all recordings that were made as a result of having an Alexa type device in the house.
There is also the possibility of hacking. Of course Amazon and all of the other providers have employed the highest security protocols. But the hackers are good and always a step ahead. If we have learned nothing over the last few years, no system is invincible. Think Equifax as just the latest example. If hackers breach any of these systems, what goes on in your house could be heard by anyone in the world and used for all kinds of purposes, from theft to blackmail.
Each of the companies says that their systems are not listening and no records are kept. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. But every time someone says “Alexa, order me a pizza”, she is on and a record exists. What else is captured? Also, with Amazon Key, a camera is installed. Other uses will be developed for Amazon Key. Real estate agents will use it to show houses. House keepers will use it. Baby sitters will use it. Exterminators will use it. The list goes on. Now, Alexa is not only listening, she is watching too. How much privacy are we willing to give up?
Even if there were no bad purposes or uses that could come out of the use and application of smart houses, there is one basic truth. The programs are used to market more products and services to you. Everything you order through these apps, every question you ask and likely everything you say, is used to profile you in order to sell you something else. The information is gathered and Amazon uses it or sells it to other advertisers. Ads then pop up on you Facebook, Twitter and other social media time lines. Direct email ads find their way to your in box. The ads on your browser are even targeted. If you think the cookies you leave in your web browsing caused a lot of this unwanted junk, your smart house is multiplying it exponentially. If this is not an unwelcome invasion of privacy, I don’t know what is.
I admit, I am old fashioned. We still have a “land line” in addition to our cell phone, though it is no longer a land line, it is VOIP. We like to call it a land line. Our TV is still “plugged in”, but we stream occasionally. While I see the benefits and potential uses of all this tech for my home and my every day use, “smart” is not always smart. It needs to be more secure before it is really smart. Then I will adapt and my kids won’t call me dumb.