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Never Mind Alexa; Is Even Roomba Spying on Us?

No, that’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s easy and profitable today to embed monitoring apps — and people don’t seem to mind

In PC Mag’s “Best Home Smart Devices for 2022,” tech reviewer Angela Moscaritolo tells us “My house is working toward a PhD. Little by little, it’s getting smarter.”

A black cat plays with a robotic vacuum cleaner that cleans the floor.pet playing with robot vacuum cleaner

No. That house is not getting any smarter. But smart people — whom no one asked in — are getting to know way more about what goes on in it. A couple of data management scientists recently offered some thoughts about that:

Back in 2007, it would have been hard to imagine the revolution of useful apps and services that smartphones ushered in. But they came with a cost in terms of intrusiveness and loss of privacy.

Smart devices collect a wide range of data about their users. Smart security cameras and smart assistants are, in the end, cameras and microphones in your home that collect video and audio information about your presence and activities.

On the less obvious end of the spectrum, things like smart TVs use cameras and microphones to spy on users, smart lightbulbs track your sleep and heart rate, and smart vacuum cleaners recognize objects in your home and map every inch of it…

Manufacturers typically promise that only automated decision-making systems and not humans see your data. But this isn’t always the case.

Roberto Yus & Primal Pappachan, “Smart Devices Are Spying on You Everywhere, And That’s a Problem” at ScienceAlert (March 15, 2022)

No indeed. Many people learned a couple of years ago that Alexa never stops listening to you.

It knows what music you listen to, what you put on your shopping list, and what smart-home products you have connected to your system, all based on what you told it to do. Because it can recognize individual voices, it also knows when you’re home—and maybe even what room you’re in (because users often name a device by the room it’s in, such as “Kitchen Echo” or “Bedroom Echo”).

Grant Clauser, “Amazon’s Alexa Never Stops Listening to You. Should You Worry?” at WireCutter (August 8, 2019)

Amazon says that employees listen to fewer than “a fraction of one percent of interactions” of those who didn’t select more privacy. (Reader’s Digest May 17, 2022) But that’s their choice. At present.

Okay. But did you know about Roomba? Amazon is about to buy iRobot, which makes the smart vacuum Roomba. But the patents are hardly all that Amazon is buying:

It’s not the dust, it’s the data.

“People tend to think of Amazon as an online seller company, but really Amazon is a surveillance company. That is the core of its business model, and that’s what drives its monopoly power and profit,” says Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit digital rights organization Fight for the Future. “Amazon wants to have its hands everywhere, and acquiring a company that’s essentially built on mapping the inside of people’s homes seems like a natural extension of the surveillance reach that Amazon already has.”

Khari Johnson, “The iRobot Deal Would Give Amazon Maps Inside Millions of Homes” at Wired (August 5, 2022)

Cybersecurity prof Paul Haskell-Dowland sketches an admittedly dystopian scenario:

In a Black Mirror-style extrapolation of the tech giant’s recent moves, you can imagine a future where Amazon health insurance (discounted for Prime subscribers, naturally) uses Ring cameras and Roomba to study your living conditions and behaviour patterns, and suggest interventions and set prices accordingly.

Amazon Care (this already exists) might inform you that it knows you haven’t taken a recommended trip to the gym because you’ve been at home all day. Or perhaps it’s a question of diet – and the ever-dutiful Amazon Robot Mower has reported a pile of empty pizza boxes and beer bottles outside by the bins.

Paul Haskell-Dowland, “iRobot’s Roomba will soon be owned by Amazon, which raises privacy questions” at The Conversation (August 9, 2022)

To be clear, Haskell-Dowland isn’t claiming that Amazon is doing that. He is pointing out that Amazon now has most of the technology to do it. Those who ignore or discount the privacy issues around smart devices do so under those circumstances.

Here’s a partial list of smart home devices available from Google alone. The number of such devices more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to IT Pro, now averaging 25 per household, up from 11 in 2019. Yes, we can tell devices to stop recording, etc., but how many of us really do that?

A question looms: Is an absolute loss of privacy and independence the price we must pay for great connectivity? If so, what is the risk that Smart World gets taken over by people who know exactly what is wrong with the rest of us and what they need to do about us. Those people have always been with us and, for them, Smart World must be the greatest temptation in history.

Note: Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism is a book-length treatment of this question.

You may also wish to read: Can your social media posts sink your credit rating? Maybe… With AI tools, your posts or the time of day you apply for a loan might matter. Is that fair to you? Did you even know? New AI tools intended to help struggling borrowers are hidden, intrusive, and currently offer no avenue for appeal, researchers say.

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Never Mind Alexa; Is Even Roomba Spying on Us?