Smart Home Manufacturers Won’t Say if They are Giving Your Data to the Feds

From a sales and branding perspective, the last thing that smart home device manufacturers (think Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and a raft of other) want you to worry about is whether the Feds are snarfing up your data.

We do know of a few highly publicized cases like asking for smart water heater data in a murder case, Fitbit data to charge a 90 year old man with murdering his stepdaughter and a few others, but at least as far as media coverage is concerned, this has not been in the news much.

So Tech Crunch went to a number of players to ask them.  Here is some of what they got:

  • Google’s Nest says it has responded to government requests about 300 times (a pretty small number) since 2015 and has not received any national security letters.  Yet.  Google is the only vendor that currently publishes numbers.
  • Amazon won’t say.  They are burying the requests for Echo data deep in other reports so you can’t tell and has no plans to impact sales by telling you.
  • Facebook also says that it will bury the data for its Portal device and wouldn’t say if it will ever break that data out.
  • Google would not comment on requests for Google Home data and instead tried a slight of hand and said “look at our Nest data”.
  • Apple said there would be nothing to report regarding HomePod because all requests are given a random identifier (such as an IP address?   Nice try Apple!) that can’t be tied to a person.  An IP address might not tie directly to a person, but it does tie directly to a household.
  • Ring refused to answer the question and said they require a legal demand.

Bottom line, everybody is dodging and weaving, so I think it is reasonable to assume that the cops are asking them for data.  Probably a small amount right now because smart homes are still a very small niche, but as it goes more mainstream, expect more requests.  And, probably, no more transparency, at least at first.

So what should you do?

The first question is do you care?  The second is well, exactly what data are they collecting.  We know a couple of TV makers (Vizio and Samsung, I think) paid multi-million dollar fines for snooping.

Will vendors decide to collect more data or less data over time?

We don’t know and the vendors aren’t saying.  Assume the worst.  Probably a safe bet.

Assuming you care, there are limited things that you can do.

For things like smart TVs, there is no easy way to turn recording of you off.  Vizio was required to notify customers that they should not say anything sensitive in the same room as the TV.  So, watch TV in silence.

Check for devices with on-off switches.  Check the vendor’s policy statements.  That’s not a guarantee of anything, but better than nothing.

Of course there is the nuclear option – again assuming that you care – do you REALLY need you refrigerator telling you to get milk?  Maybe?  But maybe not!  If you do, then turn the smart device into a dumb device.  If you don’t connect the device to the Internet, it cannot blab.

Information for this post came from Tech Crunch.

 

 

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