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If the 2017 holiday season was any evidence of the staying power of smart home technology, we are in for rapid development in this industry. Smart technology is officially here with the Amazon Echo absolutely dominating the list of most popular gifts as the best-selling product of the season, and the Alexa app taking the No. 1 most downloaded app in the App Store.
Debates over smart devices and their involvement in our lives have been the focus of attention in the technology world. Artificial intelligence is already a part of our everyday lives, such as Netflix, Uber, Google Maps, smart thermostats, personal assistants, and more. These apps and services all use new features and developments to complete tasks.
How much do we trust these services and devices, and what does the future of this technology look like? Read on to find out.
Smart tech: Friend or foe?
With so many differing opinions on how invasive we think our devices are, some people are understandably nervous about having these devices so close to their every movement.
On the one hand, smart devices help us stay organized in a constantly moving world, helping us with things like creating grocery lists, making hands-free phone calls, and completing simple tasks. On the other hand, these devices are relatively new, and not much is known about their safety.
Roughly the same percentage of respondents felt strongly one way or the other on this topic, with 27 percent of people appreciating the ability for smart devices to enhance their lives and 25 percent more wary of their invasiveness.
There was significant overlap, though, with 13 percent of respondents believing smart devices both protected and hindered their personal security. How can these two ideas coexist?
Smart technology has its pros and cons, which may lead people to believe in its future potential while also calling it a threat. New developments in interconnectivity, such as with the Internet of Things (IoT), have both their benefits and disadvantages. IoT is the network of electronic devices that are all connected together, such as televisions, phones, thermostats, appliances, and more. This technology has the potential to grow corporate profits by 21 percent with 10 sextillion bytes of data over 18.2 billion connections. IoT is predicted to help businesses grow profits and automate unstable situations, but hackers see this new technology as imperfect and prone to cyberattacks.
Few people responded they were not concerned with either the government or companies spying on them, showing how much people deeply care about this issue. In fact, 24 percent of respondents not only care if the government is watching, but also absolutely believe they are doing it. The public opinion on smart technology is not only varied but also changing constantly as more people experience it.
The idea that our smart devices are invading our privacy seems to be supported by personal experiences. Thirty-four percent of respondents took the theory even further than just believing it. They claimed that after having a private conversation, with no internet searching involved, they began to receive ads for products they had talked about.
Who owns smart devices, and who trusts them most?
Baby boomers were the least likely age demographic to own smart technology and also the least likely to trust it. Meanwhile, millennials—who’ve mostly grown up with technology integrated with smart tech—were the most likely to own smart devices and trust them. The comfortability millennials have with technology appears to predispose them to higher levels of trust.
Nearly one-quarter of smart home device owners didn’t trust their devices. This could be anything from a straight hack of their device to even misuse of personal data, the latter recently sparking a worldwide discussion regarding alleged data mining by Cambridge Analytica and its impact on the 2016 presidential election. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, testified before Congress and later apologized for Facebook’s lack of involvement.
Of course, a device’s insubordination could simply be due to human error stemming from the person giving a command, such as not speaking loudly or clearly enough. The voice command technology isn’t perfect, and it attempts to learn more about us to improve its services.
Smart devices: Are they always listening?
Nearly half of respondents believed their private conversations were stored and used to create customized advertising. Only about a third felt the opposite. The rest were undecided, leaving many to wonder if this perception has weight.
So what is the truth? Both Google and Amazon have defended their products, stating they are not recording “ambient” conversations, and only commands with certain prompts (such as Alexa’s “wake words”) will activate the device’s listening technology. They also point to the options detailed in the user guide to disable this feature at any time. Even Facebook was forced to address issues of possible smartphone microphone abuse in 2016.
Officially stated in Amazon’s Terms of Service, its devices attempt to be more efficient by learning about our habits, and many have interpreted this to mean they are invading our privacy to gain information about our habits.
Alexa, and other systems like it, are cloud-based services. Once activated via either voice or touch command, these devices pick up on our conversations when we “wake” them up.
So what happens when the technology has a hiccup and hears something that wasn’t said and responds? What if that hiccup is utterly terrifying and happens at random?
A growing number of users report Alexa unexpectedly laughing at them with no prompt, causing some to turn to social media to share their unsettling experiences.
Amazon’s official statement concerning the matter revealed a flaw in the voice-reactive system. They claim the assistant’s seemingly random laughter occurs when it picks up on a phrase that it would confuse for the command “Alexa laugh.” Refuting critics who said Alexa was malfunctioning or had issues with the AI, Amazon stood their ground that it wasn’t a flaw in the actual product but, rather, an environmental one.
Plot twist—many people didn’t buy it.
Amazon suggested an internal software change, altering the wake word to “Alexa, can you laugh,” which they argued would solve the issue of the ghost laughter. Only 62 percent of people accepted Amazon’s official statement on the matter, leaving many with questions about the integrity of their answer.
Over the years, many devices have been accused of displaying odd or terrifying behavior straight out of your nightmares. This scandal is reminiscent of the issues involving Furby in the 1990s. This beloved toy would reportedly speak in the middle of the night without being prompted. It was seen as so much of a possible threat that the NSA even banned them due to a threat to national security, as their learning of English could allow them to overhear and listen to confidential and classified discussions.
Someone thought the Furby controversy was so similar to the Alexa incidents that it prompted him to create a Furby-Alexa hybrid called “Furlexa” that the world didn’t ask for but got anyway.
Amazon overwhelmingly leads in consumer confidence
Amazon leads the way among its competitors, amassing over 70 percent of total smart speaker sales with the Echo. They also held the highest consumer trust among respondents. Apple held the lowest score, even though their focus on the security of their customers’ products led them to a legal battle with the FBI and kept them out of the Chinese market until just five years ago.
The industry itself is evolving, with security companies developing more intense protection for smart home devices. Systems like Norton Core and F-Sense feature routers with enhanced protections, giving nervous consumers confidence for the future of the industry. Overall, people believed these companies would not misuse their data, with over a quarter of respondents trusting them to hold collected audio, video, and other data without selling it to third parties.
Smart camera technology is particularly susceptible to hackers. In fact, nothing is safe, not even baby monitor cameras, as their cameras “allow the covert viewing, listening, and recording of whatever is within their range.” Smart camera/cybersecurity companies, such as Nest, point to their terms of service when questioned about the issue of product hacking.
Terms of service
Reading the terms and conditions of any product or service can be daunting. It’s important, however, to remember accepting these terms is a legally binding action. Clicking “agree” means you are digitally signing a contract, so that information is extremely important. Unfortunately, reading through these terms is not a common occurrence whatsoever.
Over 62 percent of respondents read the terms and conditions of their smart devices less than 50 percent of the time. A shocking 91 percent of people digitally sign these agreements without reading them, and that number shoots up to 97 percent for adults between 18 and 34 years old. Assumingly, in many of these cases, only parts of the contracts are read, which means even those who do read the contracts only partially know what they’ve agreed to.
After trends of low consumer confidence, Microsoft flaunted a new focus on its commitment to eliminating threats to their customers. Unfortunately, for them, it hasn’t resulted in much of an improvement. Our data revealed Microsoft users were the most likely to read the terms of service compared to other companies, and they completed reading most of the contract. On average, they read the TOS about half the time and read 48 percent of it. Their users were more thorough, showing a potential lack of trust.
Technology and society
Nearly everyone agreed technology was beneficial to society, and there’s no denying that our lives are impacted greatly by the advancement of technology.
So how do we protect ourselves from threats in the ever-changing and improving world of smart home technology? Experts suggest a variety of options. One method is to create independent Wi-Fi networks for each smart device and thus keep it off your home computer networks. Another tip is disabling the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) feature on your router, which enables new devices on the same network to automatically connect to each other. UPnP comes in handy when it allows a personal computer to communicate images and commands to a wireless printer, but can be problematic when your smart camera and home security system are in danger of being hacked through a smartphone or computer.
In general, smart home technology is in its early stages, and there is still much to learn about how it will impact our society for generations to come.
Have you been thinking about bringing smart technology into your home? Find trusted professionals in your area with Porch to help with security systems, camera installation, heating and cooling solutions, and hundreds of other home improvement and building tasks.
To collect data, we surveyed 1,023 people using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Respondents were between 18 and 76 years old, with an average age of 36 and a standard deviation of 11.08. Of the respondents, 49.1 percent were male, and 50.9 percent were female. No statistical testing was performed, so results are based on means alone.