“Smart home” devices and other gadgets powered by the Internet of Things (IoT) have grown increasingly popular in recent years, due in large part to the many ways they make our lives easier. Imagine a world where you can instantly see who is knocking on your door from an app on your phone, even if you were at work or halfway around the world on vacation. Or picture a situation in which your home was ALWAYS the perfect temperature because your smart thermostat took the time to learn your schedule and adjusted for both comfort and efficiency. This is the world we are currently living in, and we have smart gadgets to thank for all these benefits and more.
However, this new digital revolution we’re currently experiencing certainly comes with its fair share of potential disadvantages, too. Case in point: while smart gadgets are undoubtedly making our lives better and more enjoyable with each passing day, they may be making them less private at the same time.
Smart Gadgets and Your Privacy: What You Need to Know
The moment people stopped taking smart gadgets for granted can likely be traced back to a few years ago when electronics manufacturer Samsung suffered a bit of a controversy thanks to their recently released smart HDTV line. Samsung’s HDTVs were among the first released that could be controlled by your voice. If you wanted to watch the big game, you didn’t even need the remote control—you could simply tell your TV to turn to the appropriate channel, and it would do so, no questions asked.
However, the novelty soon wore off when people realized how the service worked. To ensure it was able to perform any command at any time, the TV essentially had to be listening at all times—meaning it was basically recording every bit of sound going on in the room around it. That data was fed through a third-party system to be analyzed by a service provider, raising a large number of important privacy-related questions along the way.
Likewise, a recently released Wikileaks document has revealed the CIA was actually using these Samsung TVs to actively spy on targets. Some models of the TVs shipped with a particularly nasty strain of spyware that could turn on the recording options without owners’ knowledge.
Part of the reason the Internet of Things is so effective is that, well, it’s so effective at collecting your data. The very concept of the IoT requires Internet-connected devices to not only create huge volumes of data about you at all times but to share that data with other devices. Your smart thermostat is only smart because it also knows what time you get home thanks to your smartphone or the smart lock on your door. It turns out, sharing that information with others—or even selling that information outright—is a lot more common than many previously thought.
Not even your smart vacuum cleaner is immune to this idea. Since 2015, for example, high-end models of the Roomba smart vacuum cleaner have essentially been “mapping” out your entire home as they go about their business. This feature allows them to basically learn which areas need to be cleaned automatically, but a company like Roomba having an accurate map of your home is scary, to say the least.
At the end of the day, it is important never to trust that a gadget will keep your data private—even if it explicitly says it will. Many smart devices have options enabled by default that automatically send all private data back to the manufacturer—but even if you disable them, there is still no guarantee your private data is going to stay that way for very long. If anything, it raises an important question that does not have an easy answer: how much of our privacy are we willing to give up to live a life of 21st-century luxury and convenience? Only time will tell.