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You’re Home Alone With Alexa. Are Your Secrets Safe?

Anyone there?

Anyone there?

Photographer: Andrew Matthews - Getty Images/PA Images

Anyone there?

Photographer: Andrew Matthews - Getty Images/PA Images

Privacy at home is something most people take for granted. But the home has become the latest frontier in data harvesting for big tech companies. Smart speakers and their voice assistants, app-activated thermostats and internet-connected everything else are scooping up information that could prove valuable to product designers, advertisers, governments and law enforcement. A range of interest groups, from civil liberties organizations to consumer advocates and children’s privacy watchdogs, worry about an erosion of privacy.

1. Who’s collecting data inside your home?

Amazon’s Echo, animated by the voice assistant Alexa, and Google’s Home, with its Assistant, keep track of the questions people ask and store recordings of them. Many appliances and other gizmos are marketed as “smart home” devices, a catchall term that typically means they’re able to communicate with a smartphone or a central hub (like Echo or Home) and take instructions by voice commands, remote controls or a touchscreen. Such smart devices include ceiling fans made by Hunter Fan; thermostats made by Ecobee, Emerson and Nest; Kwikset and Schlage branded door locks; and self-steering vacuums from iRobot. Manufacturers of these and other smart devices can develop a catalog of information about how people use them.

2. What gets collected?

In addition to voice recordings by Echo and Google Home, data that can be collected include maps of homes (in the case of automated vacuums) or a record of every time a smart light bulb or stove is turned on. Such information can seem mundane. But especially when paired with other information about you, it helps fill out a record of your behavior in the home. A good rule of thumb is if a device is able to transmit data wirelessly, it is probably gathering, and may well be sharing, information about how it gets used.

3. How does that information get used?

Amazon and Google say the knowledge gained from use of smart devices could lead to helpful personalized tips, like a reminder to lock the door at night. Or a smart stove might tell its owner about a maintenance issue, or suggest a recipe. The companies benefit as well. They can sift through the accumulated data for ideas about new features or products that might be welcomed by consumers. They also can -- and do -- use their trove of recorded customer voices to refine the algorithms trained to interpret and respond to human speech. Sometimes, that process entails teams of humans charged with reviewing voice recordings and other data.

4. Can law enforcement use this data?

Police in the U.S. have sought records captured by Amazon Echo speakers, and security camera and thermostat maker Nest, owned by Google parent Alphabet, says it has received hundreds of requests for information about its users from governments around the world. Typically, tech companies pledge that they won’t turn over data without a valid court or government order. Amazon, citing First Amendment speech protections, initially resisted a police request for user data in a 2017 Arkansas murder case that ultimately was dropped. (Amazon has been ordered to turn over Echo recordings in another such case, involving a double murder in New Hampshire.) The Fourth Amendment also gets cited, since it sets limits on searches of homes. But police access to smart home data remains a gray area, as the legal code in most cases didn’t contemplate corporate-owned microphones on the kitchen table or microwaves capable of communicating with the internet.

5. Where is this headed?

The next frontier, observers say, is likely monetizing the cache of personal data through advertising. Google, for instance, could use its awareness of a newly purchased smart television to suggest a set of speakers to go with it. Or the maker of a freshly activated smart pressure cooker could sell information on the buyer to local grocers, who in turn could pepper the buyer with ads. Google, the biggest player in online ads, says it doesn’t use some smart home data, like readings on a Nest thermostat, to inform targeted advertising. But it does use what people tell the Google Assistant to personalize the ads that it shows alongside smartphone apps and websites. (Amazon says it doesn’t use data gleaned from Alexa commands for advertising purposes.)

6. What can people do?

Virtually all makers of smart devices put the onus on customers to wade through lengthy privacy policies to learn how their information is being used and what options they have to control that. Users of Amazon Echo and Google Home can delete their accumulated voice recordings or opt out of some data collection. Other smart devices generally don’t allow such clear-cut options. Often the only way to stop an appliance from gathering and transmitting information on its use is to disconnect it from the internet. That, of course, eliminates much or all of the functionality promised by the “smart” label in the first place.

7. Is anybody cracking down on this?

In the European Union, governed by the expansive General Data Protection Regulation, people have the right to compel companies to stop using their personal information and to delete the information. In the U.S., laws vary by state but generally don’t give people anywhere near that much control. A California law set to take effect in 2020 will give residents the right to know how their data is being collected and shared and allow them to deny companies the right to sell it. Several other states including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York have considered legislation giving customers more control over their data or limiting what smart speakers can scoop up. In the U.S. Congress, which is increasing scrutiny of big technology companies, a slate of competing bills – some with stronger consumer protections than California, others with weaker ones – could override state actions if passed and signed into law.

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