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Consumer IoT Devices Should be Free, Here’s Why

Devices are getting smarter. Everything from cellphones to refrigerators are connected to the internet. By 2020, there will be more than 20 billion IoT units in the world. The number of IoT devices in the world recently surpassed the world’s population.

The installed base of hard-to-secure smart things, such as TVs, fridges, and security cameras, is expected to grow 31 percent this year to reach 8.4 billion devices, or around a billion more than the world’s total population.

Why Should IoT Connected Devices Be Free?

IoT devices are portrayed as handy household gadgets, that help make users’ lives easier. The truth is, these devices are convenient and fun to use. However, the benefit to the user is dwarfed by the benefit to the companies with the data these devices collect.

IoT Devices - Assistant Statistics
Source: TechCrunch (11 July 2017)

Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are friendly helpers for their users. Although they seem helpful and friendly they are actually just a channel for these companies to acquire more data. Siri and Alexa, along with other digital assistants, are spies disguised as reliable aides.

Siri reports back to Apple and Alexa back to Amazon with a heap of information about the questions you asked and the topics of your conversations. And in the case of Google Home, it records everything, whether or not you ask it to.

Google stores your interactions with Google Home in My Activity, that includes the recordings of the questions you’ve asked or any other recordings the device made.

People Pay Google to Collect Information About Them

Google IoT Devices

Data collection and analysis firms, like Nielsen, spend millions of dollars per year on acquiring information from consumers. Google though doesn’t have to buy information, because people willingly hand it over to them.

And in the case of Google Home and Google’s other IoT devices, people pay Google to collect their data. This is the case with most smart home devices, people are paying the companies. Then, along with the money, the company receives information from its “smart” data-sponge device.

Mozilla’s Gift Guide of IoT Devices

Mozilla is a leader in internet security and safety. It’s goal is to “defend the free and open web”. It published this gift guide to explain the privacy implications for some of the most popular gifts this season.

In this article, Mozilla lists these questions to ask yourself when considering your IoT devices:

  • Can it spy on me?
  • What does it know about me?
  • What could happen if something goes wrong?

However, it then explains that the companies producing these devices don’t make the answer to these questions obvious. Answering these questions, Mozilla says, “requires top privacy research skills as well as some high-level technical skills.”

IoT Security Concerns

The security issues may have a bigger effect on device sales this holiday season than expected. Consulting firm Deloitte released a survey in November in which 40% of respondents said they were concerned about home devices tracking their usage. If people are concerned about being tracked in their homes, they may wait for IoT security to catch up with other industries before buying the devices.

IoT Security Improvements

As IoT finds more uses in business and other large-scale infrastructure, the security concerns will ramp up significantly. This should lead to consumer devices also adopting better security.

As of now, a hack into a single IoT device would likely only lead to breaches in that single user’s personal data. But if an entire city’s traffic light system was connected and a breach occured, it could have very costly impacts. What is mostly a privacy concern for digital assistant users, could be a safety and security concern when applied to larger systems.

IoT Devices Are Risky, So Why Should We Pay for Them?

Bringing more connected devices into your home, really just makes you more vulnerable. These devices act as another point in which hackers could access your data. And some of these devices, like Amazon’s Echo Show, have cameras and microphones that could lead to major breaches of privacy.

If Amazon, Google and Apple all will benefit from the massive influx of user data, why should consumers have to risk losing private data and pay for the devices that make them vulnerable?

Amazon doesn’t disclose in its privacy policy or any related materials that humans are listening to recordings of some conversations with Alexa.

Amazon Employees Listen to Recorded Alexa Conversations

CNN reported that Amazon has a global team that transcribes voice commands captured after the Alexa wake word is detected. According to Bloomberg, “the team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.”

Time reported that the “teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word–or come across an amusing recording.” This creates major privacy issues.

According to an Amazon spokesman, Amazon has “strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.”

That sort of general privacy claim doesn’t settle our concerns. Just saying that privacy is a priority, and saying that a company takes a serious stance on privacy isn’t enough. Since Amazon collects and stores this information at all, and likely links it to individual accounts, they do not prioritize privacy. They may keep your conversation data extremely secure, but there are better ways to optimize their products.

Amazon Can Search for Specific Conversations

One Amazon worker told Time that he mined accumulated voice data for specific utterances such as “Taylor Swift” and annotated them to indicate the searcher meant the musical artist. The worker said that while the work was mostly mundane, “they occasionally pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help.”

If Amazon can mine voice data for specific terms, it could search your past conversations for certain topics or terms and then listen to those recordings. This becomes an issue in legal cases when Amazon may be presented with a subpoena for a person’s Amazon conversations. It becomes much easier to find certain conversations. Rather than listening to hours of recordings, someone could find what they’re looking for much faster.

1 thought on “Consumer IoT Devices Should be Free, Here’s Why”

  1. Here comes the easy part. There s one messaging app we should all be using: Signal. It has strong encryption, it s free, it works on every mobile platform, and the developers are committed to keeping it simple and fast by not mucking up the experience with ads, web-tracking, stickers, or animated poop emoji.

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