Imagine if the FBI asked you to put a device in your house that is always listening. The FBI promises us that it will only listen for certain things, such as gunshots or the voices of people on the FBI’s most wanted list. In exchange for this device that is always listening, you are getting greater safety. After all, if someone fired a handgun in your house, the FBI device can automatically dispatch the police much faster than you could dial 911. Would you volunteer for that?
Just change a few words and you have people not only volunteering but paying money to do so. Imagine if Google asked you to buy a device for your house that is always listening. Google promises us that it will only listen for certain things, such OK Google. In exchange for this device always listening, you are getting some convenience. After all, if you wanted to make coffee, OK Google can automatically start your coffee maker faster than you could.
And what convenience! I can unlock my door with my smartphone. I can turn on my lights without using my legs. I can find out about something without the hassle of typing.
Here is the bottom line: Can you really trust a for-profit business to permanently respect your privacy? (Especially one whose business it is not to respect your privacy.) Can you really trust that these devices will always be secure?
Smart homes are a dumb idea. And I can also say smart cars are a dumb idea as well. These are all solutions looking for a problem.
Let me start with the security aspect. The simple fact is nothing is ever fully secure. Everything can be hacked. If I can lock my front door or my car door with my smartphone anywhere in the world, then a hacker can unlock those things as well. Just imagine: no more forced entry. Just find an unpublished and obscure hack and unlock the door. Use the same obscure hack to turn off the home alarm and camera. Since this can be done with a smartphone, it can be done before you are anywhere near the property so there will be no video evidence. And then when you are done, turn everything back on. A smart thief can read your Facebook page and know when you are on vacation because very few people speak in the past tense on social media.
Are we really too lazy today that the simple act of walking 5 feet to a light switch is too much work? Or programming the coffee maker to start every morning? Or … well you get the idea.
Smart homes make sense for only one group of people and even then only when it cannot be accessed through the internet. They only make sense for people with disabilities.
And the privacy issue. I truly believe that businesses know more about you than the federal government. The feds put out a dragnet and filter out what they want. The marketing business want to know as much as they can about as many as possible. Imagine what a gold mine of data that can be gleaned just by listening. They can easily learn if you have pets, what kind and how many. They can easily learn if you are married, have children, how many children, your work schedules, and oh so much more.
Imagine … Alexa knows that email@example.com can learn that the husband works from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday because his voice is rarely heard during those times. The wife’s voice is barely heard for two days straight and then often for two days. Using an algorithm, Alexa can deduce that the wife is in the medical field because those are hours usually associated with nurses. A few keywords about a hospital by someone in the family can confirm that. The eldest son plays a sport of some kind because either the husband or wife uses the word “practice” quite often when talking to him. And since firstname.lastname@example.org recently bought some hi-top sneakers, Alexa can deduce the son plays basketball. So now Amazon can start selling personal data to marketing firms, even using the real address.
Do they do this now? No. But what guarantee is there that Google or Amazon won’t ever do this? They get you hooked and then betray your trust when they think you won’t do without. How else will Google or Amazon continue to pay for the servers that are needed to process your voice? Electricity ain’t free and solar power cannot produce enough energy to power server farms. (And even if it could, the maintenance on solar panels ain’t free either.)
The one question nobody asks but that should be asked is: How are they making money? These are businesses, not charities. I want my business to make money. There has to be some way to make money and if you aren’t being charged a recurring fee, then what you do is how they are making money. But all the free apps and the horrible horrible abhorrent Windows 10 shows people will happily give away their privacy for something nobody needed 10 years ago. What people take to the street to protect from the NSA they will happily hand over to a business. Smart homes and smart cars are a dumb idea and I will never have one. And if my next car is a smart car, the first thing I am doing is blocking its access to the internet. (The first thing I will try is pulling the fuse. And if that controls other things, I would like to see it work without an antenna.)