“Spies in Your Home”: Privacy Concerns in the World of Smart Devices

"Spies in Your Home": Privacy Concerns in the World of Smart Devices

"Spies in Your Home": Privacy Concerns in the World of Smart Devices. Image: r.classen / Shutterstock.com.

In an era of interconnected smart homes and gadgets, the convenience of voice-controlled assistants and data-hungry devices comes at a cost – your privacy.

Startling research by consumer watchdog Which? reveals that smart device owners are being asked to divulge extensive data to manufacturers, potentially compromising their privacy and unwittingly handing over personal information to social media and marketing giants.

Which? found that many companies seem to be collecting far more data than necessary for their products to function.

From smart speakers to security cameras, the data vacuum is in full swing. Even after shelling out thousands for these high-tech gadgets, consumers are finding themselves “paying” again, this time with their personal data.

Which? delved into the data collection practices of popular smart device brands, scrutinising what information is needed to set up an account, the data permissions required by their apps, and the marketing companies lurking behind the scenes, eagerly tracking users’ every move.

One eye-opening revelation: exact location data and its approximate counterpart are requested by every brand, despite the dubious necessity for most products to function.

Take smart speakers, for instance. These devices are supposed to listen only when you ask them to, but the data dragnet extends further. For example, Bose smart speakers have been found to share user data with Meta, Facebook’s parent company.

Researchers also uncovered a significant disparity in data requests based on the user’s phone type – Android or Apple iOS. Google Nest products, for instance, request contacts and location on Android but not on iOS, even though the app functions identically on both platforms.

The reasons behind this disparity remain shrouded in mystery, but it’s worth noting that Google’s primary business revolves around advertising and marketing, whereas Apple is primarily a hardware-focused company.

When it comes to smart cameras and doorbells, the analysis pointed to Ezviz devices, sold by major retailers like Argos, having the most active tracking firms, including TikTok’s marketing unit, Huawei, Google, and Meta. Google’s Nest product goes a step further, demanding full name, email, date of birth, and gender.

Android users may be unknowingly granting permissions for their background location to Arlo, Eufy, and Ring, even when not actively using the app. While users can opt-out, it’s not a straightforward process and could affect the device’s functionality.

A survey of 1,201 Which? members in April 2023 revealed their primary concerns about data sharing, with contacts and background location tracking topping the list.

Smart washing machines also raised eyebrows as some companies demanded users’ dates of birth, with LG, in particular, gathering a wealth of information, including name, date of birth, email, phone contacts, precise location, and phone number.

In the realm of smart TVs, users are often greeted with an array of personalised adverts.

While tracking remains optional, LG, Samsung, and Sony bundle these options into an ‘accept all’ button, making it less transparent for users.

Alarmingly, the study found that a significant portion of users admitted to not reading privacy policies when downloading apps, with most skimming through or skipping them altogether. With privacy policies often extending to tens of thousands of words, comprehending them can be a daunting task.

Under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), companies must be transparent about data collection and processing.

However, the vague nature of data collection reasons, often hidden in lengthy terms and conditions, leaves users in the dark about what they’re truly signing up for.

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, voiced the concerns of consumers, stating, “Firms should not collect more data than they need.”

“The ICO should consider updating guidelines to better protect consumers from accidentally giving up huge swathes of their own data without realising.”

In an age where privacy is increasingly precious, these findings serve as a stark reminder to stay vigilant in our connected homes.

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Written by

Anna Ellis

Originally from Derbyshire, Anna has lived in the middle of nowhere on the Costa Blanca for 19 years. She is passionate about her animal family including four dogs and four horses, musicals and cooking.