Smart homes are great. They give a range of benefits to home owners and lodgers. BUT they have some big downsides too: they can be really creepy.
Whether it’s listening to your household’s conversations by mistake, running facial recognition on people walking by or various data privacy issues, it’s important to know the risks so you can protect against them. The four creepy aspects I cover in this video are:
- 0:00 – Intro
- 0:34 – #1 – Echo devices listen to you
- 1:42 – #2 – Smart cameras can be spy cams
- 3:17 – #3 – Alexa drop-in feature
- 4:30 – #4 – Data privacy issues
- 5:56 – Wrapping up
Hello, I’m Tristan from Smart Home Point. As you can probably guess from my channel name, I love smart homes. BUT… sometimes, they’re really creepy. Whether it’s running facial recognition on people walking past a doorbell, smart devices selling your data OR useful features which are unfortunately abused for domestic violence, there’s definitely some downsides to smart homes. So this video covers the “top 4” – or should that be the “bottom 4”? – really creepy aspects of smart homes.
Firstly, everyone loves their Amazon Echo device, right? Around a quarter of all American households own one, in-fact. But did you know that by default, every time an Echo THINKS that you spoke to it, it’ll record your conversation? And that this is stored for… many, many months? Yep, under the Alexa app, you can listen back to every time that an Echo device thought you spoke to it. Some of this is harmless, such as you said “Alexa, lights on”.
“Alexa, lights on”
But if the Echo misheard you, it will STILL record this. This means that background conversations are also recorded.
Yikes. What’s worse is that this is stored for many months. If you have an Echo in many rooms of your home, there’s probably thousands of your household’s conversations stored on Amazon’s servers. Whilst you CAN turn this off, it is worrying nonetheless – especially since it is ON by default. Come on Amazon, even Google turn this OFF by default!
My second ‘creepy’ point is that whilst smart cameras and doorbells have a number of positive features, they also have a creepy downside: they allow people to spy on their neighbors and passers-by with ease. Their owners can view the video feed anytime they want, from anywhere in the world. Plus many smart cameras – including those by Ring – record audio by default, meaning that the conversations of your visitors, neighbors AND people simply walking by are recorded and stored on Ring’s servers for up to 60 days – which is a bit creepy.
“Yeah I can’t wait, I’ve got my little red dress, I can’t wait – I’ll see you there”
But worse than this is what many of Google’s Nest cameras and doorbells do. They have a facial recognition feature that scans the faces of visitors, and then logs this in a facial recognition database held by Google. Whilst Google do say that you should use this feature in compliance with the law – and it’s disabled by default in Illinois due to state regulations there – this is still a worrying feature. You could visit someone as a one-off, and your face is now held in some facial recognition database. Actually, that isn’t a problem – your face is probably ALREADY stored in this database, because simply walking past a random Nest Hello doorbell will lead to your face being analyzed and stored away. And it’s not like you can opt-out of this, either!
Are you still with me? Third, Amazon Echo devices have a “drop in” feature which is kind of like an intercom, enabling simple two-way conversations. This has got a number of positive uses – such as for a makeshift baby monitor or to chat to someone in the house quickly – BUT it also allows for eavesdropping. You aren’t able to accept or reject the “drop in” request – it’ll just start listening – and it’s not always easy to tell when an Echo is in “drop in” mode, meaning that this feature can be abused. Indeed, this feature has unfortunately been used by abusers to monitor their domestic violence victims, to see what they’re saying. Which is not a nice thought of course, but it’s definitely worth highlighting because it is a real risk.
For example, I am currently in my bedroom. I might be talking on the phone about someone I live with – without realising that the Echo that’s hidden from view over there is in “drop in” mode, in other words someone else could be listening in on my conversation.
Thankfully this ‘drop in’ feature CAN be disabled from within the Alexa app by going into your Echo device and then clicking “Communication”, and it might be worth doing this unless you can imagine yourself really needing this feature.
Finally, if you have loads of smart devices that help control all aspects of your home, you’re… kinda allowing third parties to collect data about all aspects of your home – including your household’s daily routines, when you leave the house and come home, and a lot more. This is often harmless data, but sometimes it can be abused. In 2018, the New York Times reported on a smart thermometer that essentially sold data to Clorox when certain areas had a spike in fevers – and then Clorox took out targeted adverts (for products like disinfecting wipes) in those areas. But that’s not all, your old smart devices – including light bulbs – can contain your WiFi password, so simply throwing them out could allow hackers (or your techy neighbors) to uncover your WiFi password. In addition, many common smart products – even those sold at Walmart and BestBuy – regularly transmit data back to servers in China.
Whilst this isn’t the case with Echo and Ring devices, a lot of more budget smart products DO continue to send your data back to China. Now this might be innocent, such as sending fairly anonymized data back, but you can’t always be sure what data is sent back – and how it’s used.
Aannnd, I think I’ll stop there for today! There ARE more downsides to smart homes, but I think I’ve covered some of the main creepy aspects to them. Despite all this, I will continue buying more smart devices in the future. For me personally, as long as I stick to the main smart home brands (such as Google Home, Echo, Ring etc) AND I can configure creepy features to make them… uncreepy… then I’m happy. I think it’s just worth educating yourself about the POTENTIAL downsides to smart homes, and how to guard against them.
In that sense, I hope this video has helped. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below. If you enjoyed this video, please click the thumbs up button and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
If you have any questions, feedback or suggestions about this article, please leave a comment below. Please note that all comments go into a moderation queue (to prevent blog spam). Your comment will be manually reviewed and approved by Tristan in less than a week. Thanks!