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Are smart home devices spying on us? A new study says yes

In the age of technology, where convenience often trumps other considerations, smart home devices have surged in popularity. These devices, from speakers to washing machines, promise reliable connectivity and ease of use. 

However, recent investigations have unearthed unsettling information regarding data collection practices that could pose significant privacy risks for users.

Personal data collection 

Consumer advocate group Which? recently embarked on an in-depth investigation into the extent of personal data collection by these smart devices. 

The findings reveal that companies frequently amass more data than necessary for the device’s function, leading to mounting concerns over why such intensive data collection is even required.

Smart speakers 

The study revealed that smart speakers, notably from manufacturers like Bose, were actively sharing user data with Meta, Facebook’s parent company. 

Notably, the volume of data shared appears to differ based on the user’s device – Android or iOS. For instance, Google Nest products were discovered to request contacts and location details from Android users, yet refrained from such requests for Apple iOS users.

More than you bargained for

Rocio Concha, the director of policy and advocacy at Which?, commented: “Firms should not collect more data than they need to provide the service that’s on offer, particularly if they are going to bury this important information in lengthy terms and conditions.” 

This sentiment underscores the larger issue at play – consumers, after already shelling out significant amounts of money for smart products, are also unknowingly “paying” with their personal data.

Smart cameras 

The study also shed light on the practices of smart cameras and doorbells. Brands like Ezviz, available at major retailers including Argos, were found to have multiple tracking firms active, including TikTok’s Pangle, Huawei, Google, and Meta.

Washing machines 

Furthermore, the investigations revealed that even smart washing machines aren’t immune to spying. They require personal details ranging from names to precise locations. 

Although some brands, like LG and Hoover, have made data sharing mandatory, others offer an optional approach. 

Notably, even smart TVs, from giants like LG, Samsung, and Sony, have been implicated in these questionable data collection practices.

Companies respond to the report

Many major corporations were highlighted in the Which? report for their excessive data collection:

  • Amazon’s response highlighted their commitment to customer privacy and security, asserting they never sell personal data.
  • Google emphasized their adherence to privacy laws and their transparency about data collection and use.
  • Miele’s justification centered on optimizing appliance usage and offering additional features.
  • Samsung spotlighted their customer-first approach to product design, focusing on security and privacy.

While some companies chose to comment on the report, several – including AEG/Electrolux, Hoover/Haier, and Bose – declined to comment. Others, such as Apple, Sony, and LG, did not respond before the publication deadline.

Data sharing concerns

A separate survey conducted in April 2023, encompassing 1,201 Which? members, divulged that users were mainly worried about sharing their contacts and location data. 

And even with stringent regulations like the GDPR, companies often navigate around the mandates by citing “legitimate interests,” leaving consumers perplexed about the depth of data sharing.

Revising guidelines

Which? has made an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office to contemplate revising guidelines to shield consumers better from inadvertently compromising their personal data.

Advice to consumers

To counter these issues, Which? offered consumers several strategies to bolster data privacy:

Care about what you share

Some data collection is optional during setup, and that means you can opt out. Only share what you are comfortable with.

Check permissions

On iOS and Android, you can review permission requests before downloading an app, and check what each app has access to in your settings.

Deny access

Also in your phone settings, you can potentially deny or limit access to data such as location, contacts, and so on. Although, that might stop or limit aspects of the app.

Delete recordings

Using the Alexa and Google Assistant settings, you can set your voice recordings to be deleted automatically rather than stored.

Read the privacy policy

Do at least browse the policy, particularly the data collection sections. You have the right to object to a company processing your data.

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