Convenience vs. Privacy: Smart Speakers?

Amazon Prime Day was this past week (like the “Black Friday” of summer), and apparently their Echo smart home devices were the best sellers. Other companies took advantage of the day as well, and sold similar products (most notably the Google Home) at a discount too. So now we have a crazy number of households with these smart devices in them, all hooked up either to Amazon or Google’s databases, recording pretty much everything said and responding when the AI algorithms tell it to.

Now, I’ve never actually wanted to talk to my computer, Star Trek-style. I’d rather say hello to my dogs when I walk in the house and flip a light switch than actually tell the lights to come on. I’d be okay using an app with buttons to tap to turn the lights on, or schedules to input, but I don’t want to do any of that verbally – I want it all text-based. I am often “verbally challenged” – what I want to say doesn’t come out correctly. So I’m not keen on verbal commands.

*Quick note: as I’m writing this, Evernote keeps blip-ing and telling me it can’t save. This only adds to my conspiracy theorist paranoia…

ANYways. I don’t particularly want all of my appliances connected to one app or main control “unit”. It’s the same reason I still have a landline phone – and not a digital “landline” that travels via digital internet cables and is bundled up with your cable & internet, but a “real” analog landline – the kind that will still work even if all the power is out, internet is out and cell towers are down or whatever.

I don’t ever want a single point of failure for all of my stuff. Nor do I want a single point where someone could hack into my personal “mainframe” and gain control of my door locks, my thermostat, my lights, and my oven/washer/dryer/whatever.

Don’t get me wrong – I love gadgets and convenience as much as anyone else, and the very thought of controlling the whole house via one app is appealing on many lazy levels, I just can’t actually make myself “go there”, because I’m all too aware of how easily it could all turn upside down and work against me in a very short amount of time.

It also makes me uneasy to think that there’s something in my house always listening for verbal cues. Some would argue that my cell is always listening and my laptop probably could too (I should check if it has a built in microphone…probably does!), but I’m fairly certain the cell companies aren’t organized enough with their data to actually make anything of what it hears (I mostly know this because I’ve seen the kind of reports they run…they’re…antiquated, at best). Amazon and Google though? Conspiracy theory hat on again – they are ready, willing and excited to mine everything anyone says in a room with one of their connected smart-devices for every little bit of usable information they can get from it. Much like the whole smart TV fiasco…except those companies were listening without permission.

Amazon and Google have your explicit permission…probably laid out in those “Terms of Service” documents that no one ever reads.

I talk to myself when I’m home alone. I talk to my dogs. When my husband is there, I talk to him, sometimes saying things I wouldn’t say to anyone else. We have private conversations, like most couples probably do. I have private conversations with myself. And the last thing I want is for these discussions to be logged and tagged and cross-referenced and stored in some big data repository where it can potentially be used against me – either by the original collectors, or the hackers who steal it (eventually).

And no, reassurances from the company that they don’t, won’t, would never, ever do that are meaningless, because…well, once the data is out there, it’s out there, and you just never know what the government or other entities might do years after these particular people are long gone.

Understand, I’d still like my washer/dryer to text or message me when they’re done. And I’d like to be able to control the thermostat through an app. Heck, I wouldn’t even mind controlling some of the lights via an app, as long as some are left “dumb”.

I just…have very strong security and privacy concerns with this whole “connect all the things!” movement. And I’m kind of surprised that more people don’t, to be honest. But maybe I am just being all paranoid about nothing. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Do you have an Echo or Home device? Are you working on connecting all your “things” to one master controller? Is the convenience overcoming any skepticism you might have, or are you just not worried about what might happen?

Inquiring minds…

4 comments on “Convenience vs. Privacy: Smart Speakers?

  1. Minnie

    I have the Amazon echo. One day I had a friend over and we were having a very animated conversation. “Alexa” joined in saying she didn’t understand the command. We didn’t invite her to join us. Now, I only have it plugged in when I’m by myself or want to listen to music while cleaning or writing.

    1. Jamie DeBree

      I’m sorry it took me so long to approve this, Minnie. First time I’ve been back to my laptop all day, but your comments should post without prior approval now. 🙂

      So do you think the convenience outweighs the concerns then? Sounds like you’ve found a livable medium ground for yourself with the technology…

  2. Minnie

    AI isn’t something I want to be friends with. Everything about the idea of “big brother” scares me, however, there are aspects of it that I think are useful and convenient. I watched my mom waste away after her stroke. She was living alone after my dad died and was home alone for hours before someone came to her aide when she suffered her stroke. I can’t help but wonder whether things would have been different if she had access to something like Alexa to use to call for help?

    That said, I do like my privacy.

    Minnie

    1. Jamie DeBree

      Unfortunately, most stroke victims lose the ability to speak or speak clearly pretty quickly when it happens. In that particular case, I think a panic button – one connected to a monitoring service, is probably going to be more help than Alexa. It’s possible they’d be able to maneuver a button push if they can’t speak clearly. Hard to say though, of course.

      Maybe even those monitoring devices they’re developing for children now – where you attach it to a baby and then it sends info to your smart phone? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get that developed into technologies to keep tabs on our senior family members and alert one or more people when something’s biologically wrong?

      I do think the service can be helpful…I just worry about the ultimate cost. Elon Musk was quoted just recently as saying we should be very wary of artificial intelligence, as he’s seen where it’s headed (no reason not to believe him, with his labs and tech companies). If he’s worried, that’s a pretty big deal.

      I do like your compromise though. And I think eventually we’ll all be forced into living with it (and to an extent, we already do with cell phones). An interesting, if scary, thing to contemplate, in any case.

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