Understand data collection in smart home devices

By Sandhya Sivakumar, Columnist

A Bloomberg article from February details how Amazon and Google are looking to continuously collect data from their respective smart home devices to improve their services. While the hardware companies that actually make those devices, like smart lights or televisions, are pushing back against this move in the name of consumer privacy, it seems unlikely these companies aren’t going to get their way.

This means Amazon and Google will have information about when users of their products are at home, when they go to sleep and even what TV channels they watch and when, all without any actual user input to an Amazon Echo or a Google Home. The information would be constantly reported, which allows these companies to insidiously understand user habits and lifestyles.

Although the specter of data collection is a constant looming shadow, it’s become such a ubiquitous part of daily life that it fades to the background. Whether it’s clicking a cookie agreement, agreeing to an unread privacy policy when making a new account or side-eying that free Google Home that just turned on even though you didn’t even set it up yet, we are blindly consenting to contracts we know nothing about. It’s impossible to comb through every company’s 300-page terms and conditions and we’ve become used to just clicking, “Yes, I agree,” with little to no thought as to what we’re agreeing to.

Despite being aware of the dangers of this mass-passive data collection, it’s incredibly difficult to consciously and consistently make decisions that make everyday life just a little more difficult in the name of personal privacy. There’s no way to truly stop any data from being collected at all, short of completely unplugging or not producing any data, which pretty much means being dead, although that information would be collected as well.

It’s important as consumers in the digital age to be informed about how your data is being collected and used. It’s absurd to put the responsibility of managing what data you want to allow companies to access on the shoulders of consumers, especially when many companies purposely obfuscate the process.

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We need better, stronger and stricter legislation, but we’re not going to get it. Google CEO Sundar Pichai made a laughingstock out of Congress during his congressional hearing. It’s clear an elderly Congress doesn’t understand the kind of laws that need to be put in place and definitely doesn’t have the wherewithal to get past corporate lobbies to implement them.

Taking an individual stand has pretty much no effect. Closing out of websites that ask for cookies as quiet rebellion is close to meaningless other than the minute personal satisfaction. The only power we have as consumers is to vote with our dollars, and the increasing conglomeration of corporate America means we’re losing that power as well.

Sandhya is a sophomore in LAS.

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