Is Making Your Home Smart Actually Dumb? A Case Against Alexa

By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

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The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2019 just wrapped up, with some pretty amazing innovations on the horizon: flying cars (!!! - the future is finally here!), vests that predict heart attacks, and robots that can measure the air quality in your home are some of the technologies that will be available in the next 2-5 years.

But I’m not all that worried about the technology of the future; what worries me is the technology of the present. For a few years now, one of the biggest trends at CES has been smart-home technology. This means taking all of your appliances - from doorbells to mattresses and everything in between - and connecting them to the internet and your smartphone. Before we dive into the problems with this trend, let’s talk about the benefits. Why are manufacturers loading up our appliances with new technology?

To advocates, the benefits are numerous. Perhaps first and foremost is convenience: you’re at the fridge, realize that you’re out of something, and you can say “Hey Fridge, add milk to my shopping list.” Then, when you go on Instacart to order your groceries, the list is already made. How can life get any easier? Then there is the customizability argument: by setting up different user profiles for your toaster, you get toast that’s a perfect golden brown, and never wind up with an accidentally blackened slice that, for some reason, the savages in your house seem to enjoy. You can customize your thermostat to heat your house back up when you’re about to wake up, or when you’re getting home from work. All of this helps make sure your home is just how you want it. And there are financial and environmental benefits. Smart tech will help you reduce your energy usage, saving money and minimizing emissions.

One Twitter user notes the similarities between the Samsung SmartTV privacy policy and the telescreens depicted in Orwell’s  1984

One Twitter user notes the similarities between the Samsung SmartTV privacy policy and the telescreens depicted in Orwell’s 1984

All of this sounds great, so why on earth am I skeptical? My biggest concern is that a smart home isn’t a safe home. Any device that is internet-enabled is accessible to malicious actors around the world. We all know this - it’s why so many of us block our laptop webcams with little pieces of paper, just in case. But the threat isn’t just theoretical. Samsung warned users not to discuss their personal information in front of their Smart TVs because the voice recognition software captures everything and sends it to a third party (see the fine print highlighted in the picture). The Mirai Botnet in October 2016 looked for IoT-enabled devices like digital cameras and DVRs and used them to attack an internet service provider, taking down CNN, Twitter, Netflix and Reddit. Researchers took remote control of a Jeep through its onboard computer and were able to steer the car and adjust its speed. And the FDA’s warning about internet-enabled implantable cardiac devices being accessed and manipulated by hackers is chilling for anyone with a family history of heart disease (like yours truly).

And malicious independent actors aren’t all we need to fear. While I don’t think the US is about to descend into a dystopian totalitarian state, the rising trend of authoritarianism around the globe should give us all pause before loading up our homes with cameras and microphones that can’t be disabled. China has developed a social credit system, which if you haven’t heard of it, is worth exploring in more detail . They use an individual’s behavior to determine a “social credit score”, similar to the financial credit score we use to assess creditworthiness. Bad driving, or smoking in a non-smoking zone, or spending too much time playing video games, or letting your dog off its leash, are all potential infractions that could affect your ability to buy train tickets, get your kids into top schools, get good jobs, or even keep your dog (seriously - people who lost all their points had their dogs confiscated and had to take a test on “regulations required for pet ownership”).

Smart-home technology may help us save energy and time through convenient perks, but the drawbacks are real and substantial. I see why lots of people will adopt this technology, and I think we should all be free to weigh the tradeoffs and make our own decisions. But as more and more of the options today have an internet connection, all I ask of appliance manufacturers is this: please, please keep making dumb devices. Hell, I’ll pay the same price for a fridge that doesn’t listen to me. When I’m in the privacy of my own home, I want it to actually be private. Which doesn’t seem like it’s too much to ask.