Analysis: In smart homes, convenience trumps privacy risks
George Orwell got a lot right about our society moving toward a state of constant surveillance, but not everything.
"His presumption was that people would lament and be depressed and oppressed by all these devices that can watch them and listen in," said Matthew Rathbun, executive vice president of Coldwell Banker Elite. Instead, "it seems to be that we're running toward them with glee."
We set up motion detectors in our homes. We install cameras. We speak to Google Homes and Amazon Echoes as we would actual humans and allow them to listen in on our daily lives. As a real estate agent, Rathbun has increasingly found a need to familiarize himself with this technology; according to a 2017 University of Washington report, there are hundreds of millions of smart-home devices in more than 40 million U.S. homes, and that number is expected to double by 2021. (Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Although some of Rathbun's clients remain apprehensive about devices that can collect intimate data -- think of how often we hear news stories about hacking, he noted -- more of them seem to view home automation positively. People who use these devices accept what could be at risk, he added.
We don't hesitate to download navigation apps on our smartphones, and those give companies constant access to our physical locations. What makes these gadgets any worse?
"For most of us, there's a little bit of a trust factor," Rathbun said. "If Amazon and Google and Apple start giving up our personal data to whomever, to government agencies, to private industries, then people will stop buying their products the second they find out."
Until then, we prioritize convenience.
Interior decorator Iantha Carley said that although she would "never have Alexa" because of a fear of being overheard, she has no problem using her phone to turn on her lights, an ability she said is "not intrusive."
"That's really helpful," she continued. "I think it's great to be able to control your lights, your HVAC, turn on your fireplace on a cold winter's day right before you get home."
Rathbun admitted that he is now much more likely to alter the temperature at night because he can simply tap his phone screen a few times instead of taking on the "arduous task" of walking down a flight of stairs to the thermostat.
Carley and Rathbun's words reflect research conducted by Eric Zeng, a graduate research assistant at the University of Washington. Along with collaborators Shrirang Mare and Franziska Roesner, he interviewed 15 smart-home owners in depth about their privacy concerns. Although participants were aware of security issues such as data collection, surveillance and hacking, "most were not concerned about these issues on a day-to-day basis," the report found. No one mentioned a negative experience that involved the companies, hackers or the government, he said in an interview.
"I haven't changed any of my behavior in the house," one participant said, according to the report. "If the FBI/CIA actually ever gets a recording of what's going into my Echo, they'll probably just think I'm a weirdo."
The most common privacy concern? Other people in their own home -- a complaint that surprised Zeng.
"You can play back recordings of what people are saying to the Amazon Echo -- you can hear what they've been asking Alexa," he said. He paused, then added, "I just triggered my own Alexa by saying that."
Companies such as Vivint, a leader in smart-home technology, have taken note of our priorities. Vivint's chief technology officer, Jeremy Warren, said the company focuses on "being the easy button" for homeowners. It integrates smart devices -- doorbells, indoor and outdoor cameras, locks, thermostats, and more -- into a cohesive experience, so that "you don't have to use eight different apps to control things."
This means if someone shows up at your front door while you are at work, you can access the outdoor cameras to see who they are. You can talk to them through speakers. You can even disarm the security system, unlock the door for them and then switch to the indoor cameras to watch them walk around your house. All this from an app on your phone.
Convenient? Yes. A little terrifying? Perhaps. But the Big Brotherness of it all doesn't deter us from using the devices. According to Rathbun, it is still easier for bad guys to do what they have always done -- break a window, reach in and unlock a door manually.
In fact, the one downside to homeowners' connectedness that both Rathbun and Chad Curry, who analyzes emerging technology for the National Association of Realtors, mentioned has nothing to do with security: The two expressed a need to brief prospective buyers before showing them around a house with cameras installed. If you fall in love with a property and say, "I would pay anything for this house," Curry tells his clients, you might end up having to. The sellers can hear everything.
"You've got to really temper your emotion," he said. "We're in an age of total information."
And in this age, the average consumer doesn't seem to care all that much about their data privacy -- at least not enough to do something about it.
"When we talk to members, a room of 100 people, I'll ask them, 'Who is concerned about data privacy?' All 100 hands go up," Curry said. " 'Great, who here uses Facebook?' All 100 hands stay up."
We've heard a great deal more horror stories about Facebook data breaches than we have about hackers controlling devices installed in living rooms. It could be possible for knowledgeable people to hack smart devices -- former Forbes writer Kashmir Hill was able to gather sensitive information from eight different smart homes in 2013 -- but companies have increased security measures to prevent outsiders from doing so.
Warren insisted Vivint's technology is secure, and company representative Liz Tanner emphasized the "encrypted" nature of it all in an email: The systems have encrypted passwords, the company works on an encrypted Wi-Fi network, video footage is encrypted from Vivint's hub to the cloud and back again.
We've been running toward high-tech convenience for years, Warren said. He brought up Bill Gates's Xanadu 2.0, an elaborate, multimillion-dollar mansion completed in 1997 and known for its pricey smart-home technology. But the concept goes back even further: Ray Bradbury described a programmed smart home that performs household tasks in "There Will Come Soft Rains," a short story published in 1950. "The Jetsons," which premiered in 1962, predicted video calls and robot assistants. Labs were demonstrating smart homes in the 1970s, though the market for the devices has flourished within the past decade.
Rathbun credited much of this to "the promise of cool," and Curry added that it doesn't hurt that the "Apple factor" has made devices sleeker. Think of Nest thermostats, for instance: "The design of that thermostat is an example of what has made this market start moving," he said. "If you're putting these in your home, they can't be ugly."
There is a simple cost-benefit analysis: data privacy vs. convenience. For now, Curry said, the latter seems to be winning.