Last updated April 20, 2022.

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 Just find an unpublished and obscure hack and unlock the door.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 can learn that has a husband who 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 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.)

Update November 25, 2018: Here is a patent by Google for doing exactly what I said above. Look carefully at the pictures that are included in the assigned patent. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable with Google knowing how much time you spend doing chores, watching TV, sleeping, eating, etc. And since this a patent that has been granted to Google, it means that they submitted months ago which means this was the goal all along.

Update December 21, 2018: Here is a story about how much information Amazon keeps when you use Alexa. Apparently, Amazon keeps everything you ever said to Alexa. I am sure it is to improve the accuracy of the service, for now. You better believe in the future Amazon will start harvesting the data found in those recordings.

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.)

People often ask me why I do not have Alexa in my house. The question they should be asking is why I will not have Alexa in my house. Under no circumstance will I ever have Alexa or Cortona or OK Google on or in my presence. Publicly traded for-profit businesses have shareholders to answer to. And they care about more profits, not about doing what is morally right. If a CEO does what is morally right at the expense of profits, shareholders will replace him with someone without scruples. These smart devices will be used in ways that are morally objectionable. It is not a matter if, only a matter of when. Especially since Google already has a patent on doing such things.

But you can avoid the creepy, morally reprehensible tracking: do buy or use Alexa, Cortana, or Google Home, ever. If you have a Nest system (which is now owned by Google), do not connect it to the internet, ever. You do not have to buy these devices, you do not have to use these devices. Why should you pay money to have to have a corporation track your behavior?

Update April 11, 2019: Here is a story about real humans who are paid by Amazon to listen to a random selection of Alexa recordings. Their job is to make Alexa more accurate. Again I stress, what is to prevent Amazon or any government from secretly listening to everything you say. And keep it indexed and stored. The story also tells us that Google and Apple do the same thing.

Update July 11, 2019: Google also admits that people are paid to listen to your recordings. And it seems they capture more than Alexa.

Update November 5, 2019: On November 6, Best Buy decided to shut down their smart home servers. This means that all their smart devices are now either dumb devices or useless. This brings up a good point: if a company cannot fund their servers with new device sales, they will have to find new ways to monetize — such as what Google wants to do by listening to your habits so that they can sell that information to advertisers — or shut down their servers. I personally believe that all these companies will eventually decide to obsolete your smart thermostat, light switch, whatever so that you must upgrade. I believe they will purposefully make them stop working. I don’t know about you, but I believe I shouldn’t have to replace a light switch, ever.

Most smart devices require a connection to the internet to work. The only smart devices that are immune to this nonsense are Z-wave devices.

Update December 8, 2021: An Amazon outage caused “smart” refrigerators and doorbells not work. Some people were even unable to get into their homes. Meanwhile, my “dumb” manual lock still works just fine and my “dumb” fridge never skipped a beat.

Update December 25, 2021: Bloomberg had an article on how quickly people get bored with Alexa. For many people, it took just 2 weeks before Alexa was abandoned. These people will most likely never ever buy a new Alexa. The devices have reached market saturation. The people who want one already have one and they will only replace defective ones. Maybe a few will get an additional one. This means Amazon, and by extension Google their smart speakers, will not be able to make enough money off new devices to pay for the employees and servers for these devices. This means Amazon and Google will need to find a new source of revenue, or else turn off these devices because of all the money they are losing. Currently, Amazon injects ads into your request. “Alexa, what is today’s weather?” “It is warm, and why not buy some buy a shirt to fit this weather.”

The more money Amazon and Google lose, the more creepy they will get to recoup those server, employee, and electricity costs.

Update April 20, 2022: Smart home business Insteon went bust. People now just have an expensive plastic brick.