Geeks This Week's Show

Smart home, spooky technology: Is it worth it?

Being able to order stuff online or turn on the oven before you come home from work is incredibly convenient. But what else is your smart home doing– and who is it helping?

For all the assistance smart home technology can provide, there are costs involved.

Case in point: If you have an Amazon Echo, is the help it provides worth the super spooky laughter that happens for no reason? Or the random “I’m afraid I can’t do that” responses to simple requests?

It’s been widely reported that Alexa seems to have developed a mind of its own. Videos started popping up in the past few weeks where the smart speakers would cackle for several minutes at a time, unprompted and unprovoked.

Amazon says it’s aware of the weird, creepy situation and is working on a fix. The company claims the haunting laugher is the result of the speaker “mistakenly hearing ‘Alexa, laugh.’ It’s disabling that command and will require ‘Alexa, can you laugh?’ if you want to get a reaction. On top of that, it won’t just laugh — it’ll acknowledge your request first,” the company says.

Google isn’t immune, by the way. These questions could be posed to any company with smart home gadgets.  And with the smart home gadget market expected to hit $54 billion by 2022, these questions aren’t going away any time soon.

Maybe laughter is easy enough to shrug off. But it should raise a question: Just what, and how much, are smart technology items hearing and responding to?

What’s the tradeoff?

This isn’t about kids ordering toys or games or buying things online – which is bad enough, of course—but it’s more about privacy and spying and the intelligence to know the difference between listening ONLY when it’s supposed to and not 24/7.

Put on your tinfoil hats for a moment. It’s great and convenient to ask your TV to play a movie or pause at TV show. But when you’re on the phone with a family member talking about a big sporting event, for example, should the TV be taking note on your favourite team? Or monitoring your dinner conversation and keeping tabs on the kinds of foods you like or how much alcohol you’re consuming?

“Critics have argued that the always-on devices pose a threat to privacy and security,” the New York Times writes. “There have been reports of children ordering items through the devices without parental consent, and last year Burger King took advantage of the devices by incorporating a command into a commercial.”

Do we need more social robots?

Some think this is all fuss and stress over nothing, that home assistants should interact more with its owners without prompting, that people enjoy “social” robots and that privacy concerns and outdated.

“We’re social beings — we should build machines that are social as well,” Timo Baumann, a systems scientist with Carnegie Mellon University tells Popsci. “Our research shows that it’s super important to try to build a relationship with a user,” in order for the technology to better learn, understand and comprehend the intentions of the owner.

Baumann, in his work, developed and tested an animated agent that could be interacted with vocally and on a screen. The agent was designed to give suggestions and recommendations and human subjects were presented with two models, one of which was more interactive than the other.

“They (the study participants) like this more social system significantly more, and they liked the movie recommendations significantly more,” Baumann said.

However, he also admitted the inherent difficulty and fine line here. “The critical problem is that being social is super difficult. If you’re not correctly social, then it’s creepy.”

Let’s get even weirder and creepier and dirtier, shall we?

“A Canadian sex toy manufacturer agreed to hand over $4 million to settle a privacy lawsuit last week after a customer discovered its Bluetooth controlled, app-connected vibrator secretly collected highly sensitive personal data, right down to the date and time the device was used,” Global News reported.

This was after WikiLeaks “claimed powerful surveillance tools once held deep inside the CIA could be designed to turn any connected device —smart TVs, phones and even cars — into tools to spy on their owners. And while it’s hard to imagine the CIA would want to spy on the average person, let alone the average Canadian, it’s important to remember hackers have been targeting so-called smart devices for years.”

When every minute detail is tracked, analyzed, recorded and reported

In February, two writers, Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu, wrote for Gizmodo a riveting article called “The House that Spied on Me.” Hill converted a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco into a smart home using any and every device possible, connecting even the bed.

“I soon discovered that the only thing worse than getting a bad night’s sleep is to subsequently get a report from my bed telling me I got a low score and ‘missed my sleep goal.’ Thanks, smart bed, but I know that already,” Hill wrote.

Continuing:

I installed internet-connected devices to serve me, but by making the otherwise inanimate objects of my home “smart” and giving them internet-connected “brains,” I was also giving them the ability to gather information about my home and the people in it. The company that sold me my internet-connected vacuum, for example, recently said that it collects a “rich map of the home” and plans to one day share it with Apple, Amazon, or Alphabet, the three companies that hope to dominate the smart home market. Once I made my home smart, what would it learn and whom would it tell?

Mattu, it turns out, worked with Hill to collect the data recorded and monitored by the house.

“After Congress voted last year to allow ISPs to spy on and sell their customers’ internet usage data, we were all warned that the ISPs could now sell our browsing activity, or records of what we do on our computers and smartphones. But in fact, they have access to more than that. If you have any smart devices in your home — a TV that connects into the internet, an Echo, a Withings scale— your ISP can see and sell all information about that activity too.”

So who, really, might have access to the video of Hill walking around in her house naked after setting up her in-home security camera, which detects and records any motion within the house and uploads it to the cloud?

Buyer beware. Of everything.

Bottom line: Consider, strongly and for a good amount of time, whether you want all your activity monitored, uploaded, recorded, noted and, possibly, sold to the highest bidder. Remember the massive security breaches we’ve had in recent years with credit cards – do you really think in-home technology built to track and monitor and record and analyze will be infallible?

Is that a risk you’re willing to take with your castle?

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