Smart Home Data Collection: Are Companies Going Too Far?
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Yes, smart homes are fabulous. They can save us money, time, and frustration. But let’s talk about the elephant in the room: privacy.

How much invasion of privacy is too much? Where do you draw the line? The debate reared its head again in the summer of 2017 thanks to the news that Roomba devices are mapping homes Roomba Wants to Start Mapping Your Smart Home Roomba Wants to Start Mapping Your Smart Home Your robot vacuum cleaner could be mapping your home. And the company who manufactured your robot vacuum cleaner could be planning to sell your floor plans to the highest bidder. Read More , allowing the parent company to sell the data to third-parties.

Join us as we look at what data is being collected, how it’s being used, and whether there’s a benefit to the end user.

What Data Is Collected?

In short: everything. If you have a fully kitted out smart home, with technology in your kitchen Create a Futuristic Kitchen With These 7 Smart Devices Create a Futuristic Kitchen With These 7 Smart Devices It's hard to know where to draw the line between useful and gimmick when discussing smart home devices for the kitchen, but these devices are sure to impress! Read More , bathroom Smart Devices in the Washroom? It's Not as Crazy as You Think Smart Devices in the Washroom? It's Not as Crazy as You Think Technology may seem out of place in the washroom, but these smart devices might just change your mind -- and your morning routine! Read More , car, garden Never Kill a Plant Again: 7 Gadgets to Make You a Gardening Pro Never Kill a Plant Again: 7 Gadgets to Make You a Gardening Pro Do you purchase houseplants with every intention of growing a lush indoor garden, only to be met with failure? It doesn't have to end this way -- these gadgets can save you (and your plants)! Read More , and everywhere else, there is very little companies don’t know about you.

I’m not exaggerating. Think of any piece of information, and it’s being logged. The time you generally return home from work? Your garage door sensors 4 Ways a Smart Garage Door Opener Will Simplify Your Life 4 Ways a Smart Garage Door Opener Will Simplify Your Life Garages are great, garage doors are frustrating. Smart garage door openers can help. Read More know that. How many times you go to the loo in the night? Your smart bed learned that two days after you bought it. Your preferred method of applying makeup? The smart mirror has you covered. Your favorite food? The fridge knows.

If these companies clubbed together (and who says they’re not already?), they would know you better than you know yourself.

The Benefits of Data Collection

The sheer amount of data collected is definitely spooky, but it’s not without a purpose. Almost all devices need to learn about you and your habits to allow them to function to the maximum of their capabilities.

What good is a smart mirror if it can’t give you advice about the way you look? How useful is a smart bed if it can’t use your sleep data to help you have a more restful night? A child tracker What Are the Best Child Tracking Tools and Apps? What Are the Best Child Tracking Tools and Apps? If you're a parent and want to know where your child is at all times, you should try one of these apps. Read More without location logging just becomes a fancy bracelet, and so on.

man looking at self in mirror
Image Credit: lightwavemedia/Depositphotos

Even at the most extreme end of personally identifiable information, the argument holds true. Smart medical devices 8 Medical Tech Breakthroughs That You May Need One Day 8 Medical Tech Breakthroughs That You May Need One Day Believe it or not, the speed of technological advancements is still increasing -- and a lot of breakthroughs are happening in the medical field. Check out these amazing new things! Read More are explicitly designed to track hugely private data and send it to your doctor or nurse. Without the ability to do so, they’re useless.

Ultimately, if you’ve decided to join the smart home revolution, there’s an implicit trade-off. It’s one which most users are prepared to accept.

Advertising and Profit

This is the biggest gripe of smart home users and is the most significant flipside to all the perceived benefits of data logging.

In all the positive examples I’ve discussed, it’s hard to argue against the benefits a user receives. If all the data never went any further than a select group of intended recipients, most people probably wouldn’t have a problem. But that’s not the case. Almost all the data that smart devices collect is also being used by the parent company to make money.

Of course, the data is not necessarily personally identifiable, but that’s not the point.

The Roomba

Let’s take the example of Roomba. Depending on the model, you might have paid as much as $900 for your device. Given the company has sold more than 17 million units and that robot vacuums are a rapidly growing sector Why You Should Be Cleaning Your Home With a Robot Vacuum Why You Should Be Cleaning Your Home With a Robot Vacuum The benefits of a robotic vacuum plus smart-home functionality make the Neato Botvac Connect an ideal choice for keeping your home clean without you ever having to lift a finger! Read More that already represents more than 20 percent of the worldwide vacuum market, do Roomba and its competitors have a right to profiteer further?

Clearly, $900 isn’t cheap. But let’s look at it from the companies’ standpoint. They might argue the profit they make from your data is subsidizing the cost of the device in the first place.

The gains are built into their business models. Without data collection, the smart home devices we all love would either be much more expensive or just not exist.

To return to my original question: where do we draw the line? If Roomba collected data about your usage habits and used it to improve its product line, many people might begrudgingly accept it. But selling your home’s floor plan? It feels invasive.

Different Devices, Different Expectations

Some readers might dismiss my protestations about Roombas. Personal data is personal data; it doesn’t matter what form it takes. Others may be vigorously nodding their heads in agreement with my argument.

But the Roomba is just one example. Some of the people who think a Roomba’s data collection techniques are invasive probably have no issues with other devices.

siri your wish is my command smart
Image Credit: ifeelstock/Depositphotos

What about Siri? If you use Apple’s personal assistant regularly, it probably knows everything from where you work to what you ate for breakfast.

Amazon Alexa is another example. Although it only activates when it hears the keyword, when it’s listening to you, it can pick up all sorts of other data 5 Reasons to Avoid Smart Assistants If You Value Your Privacy 5 Reasons to Avoid Smart Assistants If You Value Your Privacy So, you've bought a new speaker-based smart assistant and it's proudly sitting in the center of your coffee table. But what security risks and privacy problems are you now exposing yourself to? Read More . That includes people talking in the background, TV programs you’re watching, music you’re listening to, and lots more. It’s certainly more revealing than a Roomba floor plan.

Of course, Siri and Alexa users aren’t stupid. They know the services collect and use personal data. But it’s a trade-off they’re willing to accept. If a Roomba or a smart thermostat suddenly started recording your conversations or tracking you via GPS, there would (rightfully) be an outcry.

The Crux of the Matter

Using the examples of Roomba, Siri, and Alexa, we can get to the crux of the matter.

A company has to be aware of its core purpose. Alexa and Siri are designed to be personal assistants, and a user, therefore, accepts the services will collect data about their lives. Similarly, a Roomba is a cleaning robot; it’s reasonable to expect it to collect data that helps it fulfill its purpose.

What’s not reasonable is when the data collection only serves the company and has no benefit to the user.

For example, if Alexa tried to learn which TV shows you watch through background noise analysis, it would be a step too far. The data wouldn’t help you order your groceries or listen to the news headlines. It would solely serve to help Amazon make money Shopping vs. Privacy: What Does Amazon Know About You? Shopping vs. Privacy: What Does Amazon Know About You? Did you think Amazon was too noble to breach your privacy? You'd be surprised. Here's what the company knows about you, where that knowledge comes from, and how you can control it. Read More by showing you targeted advertising.

Similarly, Roombas mapping your floor is understandable. They use the data to plan their route around your home and learn which parts of your rooms need the most attention. But selling the data to third-parties crosses the line. There are no obvious benefits to you as a user from their actions.

It appears that companies increasingly view their devices as a way to make money off you. Are they really interested in providing a service, or the gadgets merely loss leaders that let the company get inside your home?

Where Do You Draw the Line?

Ok, let’s summarize my arguments. The very nature of smart home devices means they have to collect data about you. Without doing so, they’re useless. But if you’ve paid a lot of money for a device, is it reasonable to expect the vendor to use it as a profit-making tool? I’d argue the answer is definitely “no.”

You might disagree with me. Perhaps you think companies have a right to make money from the services they’re providing?

Whether you agree or disagree, I want to hear from you. You can leave all your opinions in the comments section below.

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  1. dragonmouth
    September 28, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    "Smart Home Data Collection: Are Companies Going Too Far? "
    As far as the companies are concerned, they have not gone far enough.

    "How much invasion of privacy is too much?"
    How much pregnancy is too much? Either you're pregnant or you're not. Either you have privacy, or you do not. There is NO middle ground.

    "whether there’s a benefit to the end user"
    There always is SOME benefit to the user. The question we all should be asking is whether the benefits of a particular device outweigh the negatives of it spying on us and its manufacturer using any information thus obtained for its own profit.

    "Almost all devices need to learn about you and your habits to allow them to function to the maximum of their capabilities."
    However, with a very few exceptions (medical monitors, for instance) there is absolutely no need for these devices to be calling the mother ship. They can perform their intended tasks without contact with mamma.

    It is understandable that Roomba needs to map a house but that data should not go beyond the walls of that house. There is NO logically justifiable reason that iRobot Corp needs to know the layout of every house that their robots clean. The Merry Maids Cleaning Service (an actual company) employees need to know the layouts of the houses they are cleaning. However, if they reported that data to corporate HQ which then used that data for profit-making purposes, they would find themselves in court very quickly. What is the difference between iRobot Corp and Merry Maids?!

    "The Crux of the Matter"
    The crux of the matter is why is a company that provides services through it smart devices allowed to collect data but a company that provides the exact same service but through its human employees is not???

    "Where Do You Draw the Line?"
    The line should be drawn at the walls of the dwelling, be it an apartment or a house. No data collected by the smart devices should ever leave the confines of that dwelling. An argument can be made that companies that provide free products (Internet, etc.) may collect data in lieu of cash payment. However, companies charging for their products AND then collecting data is intolerable and should be illegal.

    We, the consumers, are the Crux of the Matter. We demand the convenience of controlling anything and everything through our smartphones, Well, TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Everything has its price and the price for this convenience is privacy. The question is, how many of us are willing to pay that price? I, for one, definitely am not. At the present state of affairs we can have one or the other, but not both.

    It is possible to have both, but we would have to give up on the convenience of controlling our devices through our phones. For me, that would be a small price to pay for my privacy.