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Smart Appliances and Your Privacy

August 24, 2017

Imagine this spy thriller: operatives of a hostile nation hack vacuum cleaners to spy on the highest levels of U.S. government. It sounds silly but vacuum-cleaner espionage made headlines recently when the CEO of iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, suggested that the company would sell consumer data gathered by the popular robotic appliance. While iRobot quickly clarified that the company will never share data without users’ permission, the incident does highlight the potentially serious privacy and security issues of the billions of internet-connected devices that are fast becoming part of everyday life.

The challenge is that many smart appliances have cameras, audio recorders, and sensors so they can gather and store information about your habits and home. For example, some Roomba models make a map of your home so you can control their work via your mobile device. When you tell a virtual personal assistant such as any Alexa device to order something for you, it may store the information you tell it for future use.

This stored data can make your life easier, but it can also put your privacy at risk. At a minimum, many companies behind connected appliances will share information with other businesses, probably exposing you to unwanted advertising. At worst, criminals could access these devices across the internet to steal personal information, track whether you’re home, or spy on you. Your privacy could even be at risk from legitimate sources. In a 2016 testimony to the U.S. Senate, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, stated that intelligence agencies may use these connected devices in the future for surveillance activities, and in a recent court case, law enforcement is seeking audio recorded by an Echo device as possible evidence in a murder investigation.

  • There are some things you can do to keep your smart appliances from turning into spies: Before you buy a device, check the terms of service. If the company doesn’t give you control over whether and how your information is shared, think hard about whether to buy the device.

  • Turn off or don’t buy features you don’t need. For example, if you don’t need to control your robo-vacuum from your smartphone, buy a lower-end model or don’t have the vacuum connected to the Internet.

You can take precautions, but ultimately, the more monitors, cameras, and internet connections in your home, the more risk there is that something will be hacked. So, you need to decide how smart you need your home to be. Sure, it might be great if your refrigerator told your personal digital assistant that it’s time to re-order milk. But a refrigerator magnet holding a grocery list might work just as well, and it will never share your secrets.

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