Will you be getting a smart home spy for Christmas?

Facebook, Google and Amazon are eager to get their new devices under your tree. But will they give away your privacy?

If you’ve so far withstood the temptation to install a smart speaker in your home, worried about the potential privacy pitfalls and a bit embarrassed about the notion of chatting aimlessly to an inanimate object, brace yourselves. This Christmas, the world’s biggest tech giants, including Amazon, Google and Facebook, are making another bid for your living room, announcing a range of new devices that resemble tablets you can talk to.

Facebook’s is called Portal, Google’s the Home Hub, and Amazon has unveiled the second version of its Echo Show. You can still speak to the digital assistants embedded in these devices, but their screens enable hands-free video calling (apart from the Google one), can act as a control pad for various smart devices you may have around your home, such as thermostats or security cameras and (this feature is on heavy rotation in all the promotional material) you can use them to prompt you through a recipe without resorting to smearing your buttery fingers over your phone or laptop. And they’re on sale just in time for the festive season.

But before you make the leap and send off that letter to the north pole, you may want to ask a few questions. Misgivings about placing a giant microphone beaming data back to Amazon, Google and Facebook’s headquarters are common, and it is worth questioning whether being at the cutting edge of the technological curve is worth the loss of privacy it requires.

Christmas came early for me, when a Google Home Hub was delivered to my door. Unpacking it and installing it was a breeze, particularly if you skip past the screens telling you how Google shares your data with commercial businesses, that it saves your activity “on Google sites, apps and services”, including every website you access via Chrome and monitors the battery level on your smartphone and how often you use it.

The device, a sleek screen with surprisingly hefty speakers, went on sale in late October for £139, £600 cheaper than Google’s cheapest Pixel 3 smartphone. The economics behind the smart devices don’t, on the face of it, make sense. “It’s pretty clear that Amazon and Google are losing money on every device they sell,” says Ed Thomas, principal analyst at technology analysis firm GlobalData. But the giant loss-leaders serve a higher purpose. “The hardware revenue they’ll derive from those sales is secondary to what the speaker delivers for them: they get a vast amount of extremely valuable user data.” They’re also a way for users to dip their toe in the internet of things-enabled (IoT) future, where every dishwasher, light bulb and toaster tracks our preferences and talks back to us. Indeed, the future is already here: earlier this year Amazon released dozens of devices, including a smart voice-controlled microwave, plug and wall clock.

Amazon’s Echo Show smart speaker and screen.

Thomas and other analysts call these smart home hubs “gateway devices”: a tech-enabled gateway drug to get us hooked, before moving us on to other internet-of-things devices, such as smart microwaves. “Trojan horse is another way of putting it,” he adds.

Certainly, my initial interactions with the Google Home Hub felt unnerving. It was enormously helpful, telling me what meetings I had that day, setting up reminders for me to do things later on and giving me a precis of the news every day, but I still felt monitored. The Home Hub’s startup screen is at pains to say the small capsule-like dot at the front and centre of the device (where we’re used to seeing webcams) is an ambient EQ light sensor and categorically not a camera, but the fact that you have to physically flick a switch to turn off the always-on microphone is unnerving. “Recording only happens when you use audio activation commands […] and includes a few seconds before to catch your request,” the device’s privacy text explains, but you’re advised to “let friends and family know that their interactions will be stored in your Google Account unless they link their account”.

It’s an odd Catch-22: don’t link your account and your voice is left under the control of someone else; link your account and you, too, are data to make profit from. (Amazon’s Echo “processes and retains audio, interactions and other data in the cloud”, according to its privacy policy.) I was acutely aware that this small screen wasn’t designed solely to make my life easier – it was made to make money.

“The data they’re collecting allows them to deliver more targeted services and to improve the quality of the services you get from the virtual assistant and the devices,” says Thomas. The level of granularity these companies get about how we live our lives by installing devices in our homes gives the manufacturers an unparalleled insight into our habits and our preferences, making it even easier to sell us their products. For Google and Facebook, that’s acting as a broker to third-party companies; for Amazon, a massive global marketplace, the company can sell to us directly.

“It’s very clear what they’re trying to do: sell you more stuff through third-party use of your own information,” says Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, author of Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life. Thomas agrees. “Once you get people used to the fact they don’t have to pick up a phone or a tablet to buy something, that will start to feed in to other ways that Amazon, particularly, as a retailer, is looking to make the way we buy things more seamless.” It’s already working: research by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, a market research firm, shows that the average American Echo owner spends $1,700 on Amazon per year, compared $1,000 for a bog standard, non Echo-owning Amazon customer.

But there’s a more sinister side to unbridled capitalism. There are plenty of people with concerns about the trade-off between unparalleled convenience and a Big Brother-esque scenario in which our every step is monitored and every breath, cough and cry recorded and beamed up into the cloud.

The second question I asked the small screen in the corner of my room was: “What are your privacy settings?” The response, from the disembodied voice of a woman (a character who, according to her designers, is an art historian from Colorado and enjoys kayaking) inside my Home Hub directed me to its online privacy policy, a website I didn’t visit. In response to the question: “Are you always listening?”, the Home Hub explained that it begins recording after hearing “OK Google”, then sends that recording to Google.

Google’s Home Hub

I next asked: “What happens to that recording?” Home Hub’s response? “Sorry, I’m not sure how to help. But I’m learning more every day.”

“A little dose of scepticism and caution is always a good idea, especially when a relatively new product, system or service is introduced,” says Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity and privacy researcher and adviser, who looks at the security of such smart devices. “In principle, users have full control over the voice recordings and can also request their deletion at any time. However, past examples demonstrated that assistants might record in response to pretty random words.”

It’s for that reason that Deschamps-Sonsino doesn’t have a smart home hub in her house. “My name is Alexandra; every time a friend talks to me and has an Amazon Echo with Alexa in their home, it wakes up,” she says. Her friends will unplug their Amazon Echo whenever they’re not using it, too. “That’s kind of the only way you can guarantee that the speaker isn’t constantly listening for stuff it shouldn’t be listening to.”

“We generally assume that they collect all the data their sensors enable them to collect, but we don’t know the sensors’ capacity or how long they retain the data they collect,” explains Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights group, who warns that privacy laws have not kept up with technology.

Deschamps-Sonsino and Tien are particularly concerned about the potential for police or government agencies to access data collected from such devices. “And we know that law enforcement has increasingly sought the information these devices collect for criminal investigations,” Tien adds.

But the sheer wealth of data the devices vacuum up is also a worry.

Facebook’s Portal

“Collecting information like your power usage can reveal detailed personal information depending on the frequency of collection, such as what hours you keep, when you turn on your washing machine and when you’re out of town,” says Tien. “A device’s terms of service might say it collects your hourly power usage data and customers may not realise that this is actually highly revealing.”

Even more revealing are the patents these companies have filed for features they may want to put into their devices in the future. Amazon has been granted a patent to recommend cough sweets and soup to those who cough or sniff while speaking to their Echo. Patents filed by Google dating back to 2016 propose integrating the detection of coughing and sneezing into a Home Hub-like device and tailoring its responses to you on that basis.

None of these features are implemented in the current iterations of either company’s smart speakers – and in the past both firms have repeatedly denied that filing a patent means they intend to implement the ideas into devices. But they show the intrusion into users’ privacy that could potentially occur.

And that’s when the systems work as planned. Last year, a bug in the Google Home Mini, a precursor to the Home Hub, caused entire conversations to be recorded and beamed back to Google, even if the “OK Google” trigger wasn’t spoken. Google quickly apologised and fixed the issue, but it did little to quell fears about over-the-top surveillance. One family only realised their Amazon Echo had been listening to their conversations without their permission when the audio file was accidentally sent to a friend (the company later said it must have heard something similar to “Hey Alexa”).

The fear about whether or not such devices are actually always on causes some users to relegate their smart speakers to corridors. “Think about where in the home you want to use these things, particularly if you think they might be listening all the time,” warns Deschamps-Sonsino.

Is this level of home surveillance desirable? She isn’t so sure. “We already live with a ton of data collection,” she says. “Our mobile phones are open to snooping, to a degree. We have websites we use that are more or less tracked through our online use. Everything is basically tracked. I’d like to think my home experience can be an experience I’m using for myself. When I’m just living my life, I’d like to think that’s between me and, literally, the bedpost.”

Time to smarten up? The new networked home devices
Google Home Hub
Google have acknowledged the fears users have about allowing cameras in their homes by omitting one from the gadget, ruling out video calls. The built-in Google Assistant will respond to your questions about the weather, restaurants and so on via its screen. It also works as a control centre for smart devices you may have around your home – nearly 5,000 are compatible.

Amazon Echo Show
This second iteration features a 10in screen for streaming video but, at present, video calls are only possible with other Echo Show owners. Amazon boasts that the device has eight microphones and “far-field technology” so Alexa can recognise your voice while music is playing – you may not consider this a plus point.

Facebook Portal
The social networking behemoth’s first piece of branded hardware is pitched as a product that will enable you to use its video Messenger service hands-free – the camera follows you around the room. Mercifully it comes with a handy lens blocker for when having a Facebook camera in your home feels a little spooky. The device also has Alexa built in.

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