Home Privacy Issues with Internet-enabled Smart Devices

created Oct 21, 2019

In the fall of 2017, I purchased an Amazon Echo smart home speaker or whatever it's called. I wanted to learn how to create a flash skill.

In late 2017 and into 2018, I used the Echo to listen to podcasts and other skills, but in 2019, I'm unsure if I have ever used it. It's not a device that neither my wife nor I need. For me, it's a solution in need of a problem.

The Echo only functions when it's plugged into its power cable. I mistakenly thought that it would function without being connected. I thought that it had an internal battery that would get charged, and I could carry the device around like a small radio. But since we have smartphones, it's probably unnecessary to make the Echo and similar devices function like the way that I had hoped.

Anyway, the Echo is a fine device for streaming podcasts and other types of audio programs. I have never used the Echo for anything else. I think that it can be used for shopping or making lists and more. ??? I don't know. Don't care.

I have only plugged in the Echo to its power source when I use it. Over the past 12 months, however, I have used the Echo's power cord more often to charge the old Blackberry phone that I use as a novel WiFi device.

In recent years, the concerns about these always-on, always-connected "smart" home devices have revolved around privacy. The more technology that we introduce into our lives, the less privacy and security that we can expect.

We value convenience more than privacy because we have nothing to hide [eyeroll].

Oct 15, 2019

bbc.com - Google chief: I'd disclose smart speakers before guests enter my home

It's an admission that appears to have caught Google's devices chief by surprise.

After being challenged as to whether homeowners should tell guests smart devices - such as a Google Nest speaker or Amazon Echo display - are in use before they enter the building, he concludes that the answer is indeed yes.

"Gosh, I haven't thought about this before in quite this way," Rick Osterloh begins.

"Does the owner of a home need to disclose to a guest? I would and do when someone enters into my home, and it's probably something that the products themselves should try to indicate."

To be fair to Google, it hasn't completely ignored matters of 21st Century privacy etiquette until now.

Related Hacker News discussion contains over 500 comments.

Top HN comment:

I was a huge Google Fan but this is becoming lunacy.

I understood trading some data and privacy for great search results, maps and free quality email.

But people willingly bringing always on listening devices in to their homes (beyond what smartphones are already capable of) I just can't comprehend it.

Why would people voluntarily do this in exchange for being able to ask for weather, play a playlist, add a todo and a few other parlor tricks.

I guess I value my privacy more than others and don't like the idea of entities compiling a record of my data that they can sell and market.

Imagine how some governments could use this data to limit freedoms, crack down on their opposition.

And what about the first data breech that includes transcripts or even audio of all your household conversations/activities over the past three years matched up to your email or even address?

It just sounds like we are heading down the wrong road.

Google, Amazon, and many other "smart" home device makers believe that the "wrong road" is profitable.

HN comment reply to the above HN comment:

What does having a Nest thermostat get you? I'm a tech dude, I build modern software, but I live in a dumb, old fashioned house. My programmable Honeywell thermostat, which has no internet connection, does a perfectly fine job of keeping my home the right temperature. My door locks use a key, and keys have great battery life, and my smoke detectors beep instead of speaking to me. What am I missing by not having internet connected stuff?

Another HN comment:

I loved my Nest thermostat when I first bought it. I could change the set point with my phone without getting out of bed, or set the house to the right temperature before I got home. It would automatically go into energy-saving mode if nobody was home. I could track my long-term energy usage with an app on my phone.

That was all very nice, but then Nest blew it. They kept forcing firmware updates to the thermostat that I had no control over. Some of them bricked the device for a period of time; some merely changed the UI so that options on the thermostat moved around or literally disappeared. I finally got fed up and reset the thing and refused to give it my wifi password. Then Google bought Nest which made me doubly sure I'll never connect the thing again.

Now it just works as an ordinary dumb thermostat. A rather expensive dumb thermostat, but it does the job. The extra features that came from connectivity are not worth the company's disrespect for my right to control the devices in my home

Oct 18, 2019

mercurynews.com - The voice from our Nest camera threatened to steal our baby

A father Googled ‘Nest + camera + hacked’ and found out that this happens frequently

I am reminded of Google’s former motto: “Don’t be evil” (now buried in literally the last sentence of their code of conduct). It is not evil to bring a product to market before the privacy has been completely figured out, but it is evil to let someone threaten to kidnap an 18-month-old and have no real response.

Maybe privacy is a thing of the past. Maybe trolls on the internet are everywhere. Or maybe an almost trillion-dollar company needs to hire a few more developers focused on security and a few more customer service representatives to help parents cope when anonymous, sadistic people terrorize their users. Or maybe Google buried its former motto for a reason.

Oct 17, 2019

This story is less about privacy and more about Google exerting its dominance, which can lead to privacy issues.

Techmeme link

Nest is becoming less popular among residential builders as Google's software changes impede Nest devices' ability to connect with third-party IoT devices

bloomberg.com story

The Alphabet Inc. unit [Google] bought Nest in 2014 for $3.2 billion to enter the so-called smart-home market. Nest has become one of the largest makers of internet-connected thermostats, smoke alarms and locks.

The devices were popular with builders who saw a Nest gadget as a way to increase the value of properties. But earlier this year, that began to change as Google exerted more control over Nest and started changing the underlying technology.

As a more independent business, Nest developed software that helped its gadgets communicate with a wide range of products from other manufacturers, through accounts set up directly by users.

As of the end of August this year, however, consumers need a Google account -- and access to the company’s voice-based Google Assistant service -- to integrate new Nest products with other devices in their homes.

The move may help the internet giant weave its Google Assistant deeper into people’s lives. But for builders it’s just a pain because Nest devices no longer work so well with the other gadgets they install in homes, such as audio and entertainment systems, and alarms and other security gear. It’s also a less enticing user proposition with all the privacy permissions that Google Assistant requires.

That’s spurred some builders -- who collectively purchase tens of thousands of Nest devices each year -- to avoid Nest products.

Google has said it is being more selective with outside partners to increase security and privacy.