Are smart appliances a smart thing to buy?

Carly Styka, Opinions Editor

Many new appliances and products on the market today have features that appeal to consumers. One of these features, smart technology, allows devices to connect to the internet, other devices and apps. The device can make decisions on how to operate based on calculations from the data they receive. Although this feature is useful, it has its pros and cons. According to data from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, the number of smart speakers installed in homes increased from 36 million in December 2017 to 66 million in December 2018. With the increasing popularity of these devices, it is important to have a deeper understanding of the risks of using them. 

The main selling points of smart appliances are how convenient and user-friendly they are. A person can control all the appliances in their house through a phone app. They can dim the lights or set the thermostat with just their voice. This convenience comes at a price, however, as any device connected to the internet can be hacked. Although laptop and computer security are common knowledge, the idea of setting a password for a thermostat or fridge is new to most people. 

Hackers take advantage of this and compromise people’s home systems. They can gain access to security cameras, baby monitors, thermostats and fridges. Gaining access to one device allows a hacker to compromise every other device connected on the network. 

A couple from Lake Barrington, Arjun and Jessica Sud, experienced this firsthand. 

Their Nest cameras, some of which were used to keep watch on their son, and thermostat had been hacked. They heard a vulgar male voice coming from their baby monitor. When they went to check on their son, the voice stopped. They then noticed their thermostat had been set to 90. Then the voice began speaking directly to them through their security camera. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune, Arjun Sud said, “All these devices you’ve put in there to safeguard yourself, to protect your home, your family, (are) now being used maliciously to turn against you.” 

Another risk of smart devices is what information they collect from you. Recent data scandals from tech giants, such as Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, have made most people aware that our online browsing activity is monitored. But the amount of data that companies can gather about users through smart devices is often not disclosed to consumers or it is buried deep within a privacy policy. 

According to a report from Bloomberg, Amazon and Google are beginning to request more detailed information on smart speaker users. They have requested specific data from connected devices, such as what station the TV is set to and what time the lights get switched on. They even want to know how often the lights and TV are turned on and off, regardless of whether the user gave the speaker a command. Although this information by itself doesn’t seem very invasive, when combined with other user data, it gives companies a deeper look into a person’s private life. They would know what kind of TV you like, when you are most active and when you put your kids to bed. 

Although these companies may not be using this data for advertising, they should make consumers informed as to what data they collect so consumers can give their consent. They could also give consumers more control over what data they are willing to share.

Even though there are significant drawbacks to using smart devices, they can be lessened by taking some precautions. Using strong passwords and ensuring the devices are up-to-date can help protect against hackers. An important thing to remember is that nothing you do online, whether on your laptop or on your home speaker, is truly private.