The Internet of Things… that know a little too much about you
Though I’ve been wearing a few armsful of wearable activity trackers for about 4 years now, my entry into the smarthome space has been pretty recent. I’d purchased a Nest thermostat more than 2 years ago, but kept finding excuses not to set it up. Was I ready to invite Nest, Google, and the rest of the world  into my home? With wearables, it’s hard to forget that you’re wearing one, and they’re easy to remove if you don’t want a particular activity to be tracked. The reverse is true for home monitoring devices–it’s easy to forget that they’re there, and they’re more difficult to remove .
Last July, I decided it was time to take a deep breath and invite the Internet of Things into my home. If these devices are going to be around for awhile (which they will be), it’s in my best interest to understand their strengths, limitations, and capabilities, and how they fit into broader data ecosystems. Even if it does feel a little creepy.
When I moved to Cambridge last summer, I finally set up my Nest thermostat, and ordered an Amazon Echo. The Nest didn’t do anything very interesting for the first few months, as it was only connected to the heater (not the air conditioner). The Echo took minutes to set up, and my partner and I engaged with it immediately. “Echo, set a timer for 5 minutes.” “Echo, play November Rain.” “Echo, tell us a joke.” “Echo, add popsicles to the shopping list.” “Echo, who is better, you or Wolfram Alpha?” “Echo, play Chet Faker. Echo, stop. Echo, play Chet Faker. Echo, stop. Echo, play Chet F-A-K-E-R. Echo, stop.”  And so on. In the app, we could listen to an audio recording of each of these requests. I understand why this exists, and that recordings only happen when the Echo hears the wake word (in our case, ‘Echo’, but it can also be set as ‘Alexa’ or ‘Amazon’). But it’s still a little unsettling to not only know that you have a microphone in your living room, but to also hear its recordings of your voice.
Neither my partner nor I were excited about using our Echo as a commerce platform, so when we set it up, we turned off the ability to buy things using the Echo. I also noticed that I started acting differently when discussing some topics, opting to move to another room away from the microphones in the Echo and our phones. It reminds me a bit of how Cubans in Havana acted when asked about the government: they’d take you into a windowless room and turn up the music before telling you their thoughts .
Yesterday, we added two more devices to our home collection, the Google Home and a set of Lifx lightbulbs. I spent an hour trying, fruitlessly, to set up the Lifx bulbs. Despite my attempts with different light fixtures, bulbs, power cycling, wifi network settings, proximity to the router, and more power cycling, the Lifx bulbs kept getting stuck when trying to connect to the wifi network. I’ll try a few more things before giving up and going with the Philips Hue. So far, I’m not impressed.
The Google Home took a couple tries to set up, but eventually connected to the wifi. In the onboarding process, the app asked for access to my Chrome web and app activity, as well as contact, calendar, app, music, battery life, and sensor readings from my phone. Basically, my Google Home device wants full reign to use my data from my phone and all of my Google services. That’s both intriguing and terrifying. It’s one thing to have cookies and retargeted ads follow you around the web, like a videogame bad guy who’s hot on your trail. But do I really want to add my home into this mix? I’m pretty sure that Adblock Plus doesn’t have an extension for smart speakers yet (at least, I couldn’t find one). I don’t have a subscription to either my Amazon Echo or my Google Home. Will the current business models of subscription-based music and the voice-based commerce platform suffice, or will personalized advertisements soon be following me off the computer and into my living room?
Privacy concerns aside, it’ll be interesting to see how good the personalization of my Google Home can get. I’ve been impressed with Google Now, and can imagine that having a voice interface in my living room could be useful. And I can also see a million ways for it to go wrong. For now, I’m treating my home like a fishbowl. Which may be the right default anyway, smarthome devices or not.
 I take privacy and security of my devices and data seriously, but assume that any data I produce anywhere may end up being used in unanticipated ways, including becoming publicly available.
 And this assumes we’re talking about your data, in your home. However, the devices in your home also collect data about other people in your home, who may not realize or consent to being monitored. Likewise, you’re being monitored in other peoples homes, often without your knowledge or consent.
 We never were able to get our Echo to play Chet Faker. That said, most of the time the Echo does a really good job of interpreting our requests. (What it does in reply, that’s a different story. Let’s just say that we hate the 30 second song previews.)
 It’ll be interesting to see how this changes in the months and years that come, both in Cuba and elsewhere. To what extent will governments use these devices to eavesdrop into living room conversations? How can companies continue to develop these types of technology in ways that respect privacy?
Originally published at rachelkalmar.com on November 29, 2016