With the growing adoption of smart home applications and IoT, one needs to consider the ethics of smart home technology and its impact on our lives.

A smart home can facilitate many things that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Who wouldn’t want the ability to control the air conditioner, lighting and music just by using simple voice commands?

Whether we are at work or on vacation, these latest devices will enable us to know what’s going on and their built in security features can provide an enormous amount of help in an emergency. That’s why we are now more interested in transforming our homes into a true “smart home”.

With this in mind, the biggest tech giants are now competing to make our apartment or home a new stage for all of their latest tech devices and modules. 

Obviously, technologies make our life easier and smarter than before. But, with the advancement of technology, it also makes us concerned about ethical issues. Now the question is, how “smart” is this smart technology? 

With voice assistants and cameras viewing and listening to our conversations in our most intimate spaces, where we talk with family, eat or sleep together; surely there are serious ethical issues to consider.

Privacy Issues Regarding Smart Home Technology

We are now familiar with lamps that turn off with a voice command or window shades which automatically rise in the morning. Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), these once amazing devices are now standard features in many homes. 

In truth, these devices are always waiting to receive the “activation” signal or indication that can be executed by a connected central hub. IoT interacts with the other components like mobile devices, proxies and other data collectors for data sharing, data processing and other activities in the context of the command provided. 

So, we can define “Smart Home” as a living place equipped with computing and information technology that predict and act according to the needs of the occupant. 

No doubt, life is really easy within a smart home. But, before fully accepting this smart home technology, it’s important for us to know the privacy risks associated with it.

What makes us think about a smart home? It can be a speech-recognized speaker like Amazon Echo or Google Home Assistant. 

Devices like these analyze our past commands to try to anticipate our needs. They know our routines and the subjects we are interested in. Using Google Home devices, we’ve made internet searches more disclosed than ever, which means Google gets more and more information from us. 

What can Google do with all this information? To the tech giants like Google, more information equals greater earnings. Similarly, Amazon needs our information just as much, so they can filter their target products that match our needs. The same privacy concerns with Google Home are present in the Amazon Echo as well.

As bigger companies use our data for marketing purposes, it is necessary to keep these devices secure. Specific importance should be given to access controls, which allow the device to complete purchases using the owner’s accounts; identify key information, or find out more about us. 

User Consent

Globally, millions of smart devices will be purchased and installed this year. Most consumers who want to upgrade their home appliances, see smart interconnected devices as an exciting feature and not a point of annoyance. 

However, the universality of smart Internet-connected devices in homes require us to understand how data collection can impact our lives and what rights we have regarding data collection.

In recent years, several scams have been reported about IoT devices and it requires the ongoing attention of privacy advocates to push the agenda to keep us safe in this technological evolution. Governmental agencies are also legislating to safeguard citizens’ personal data across the world.

The tech giants are now very concerned about users’ privacy policies. For example, Google is on longer interested in using the term “smart home” in its marketing material. Instead, they introduced the concept of the “helpful home”. 

According to a top Google executive, the term “smart home” has fallen out of favor at the company as it suggests imagery of surveillance cameras and smart home devices that are constantly listening, tracking & monitoring. So, a “helpful home” is a comparatively better term that respects consumer privacy and comes with all sorts of features and benefits to make our lives easier.

So, before buying it is important to check the safeguards that the device offers. In general, it is beneficial to stick with major brands, as they value their corporate reputations and are less likely to take shortcuts. Well-known brands can also quickly fix security holes as soon as they are discovered.

Usability of Smart Home Technology

We know there are privacy, security and ethical considerations with smart home devices. 

However that does not mean we cannot still take advantage of these new innovations. The market for smart home devices is flourishing and going well beyond voice-activated tools such as Amazon Echo or Google home devices. 

To mitigate the risk factors we need to be careful on how we handle these devices. Here are a few tips to follow to secure our smart home with IoT devices:

  • Research the security, privacy and accessibility options that are available for customizing the device. For example, a device may offer multi-factor authentication (MFA) where we use our traditional password and username combination with the added step of receiving a verification code in our smartphones. If MFA is available, it’s worth using.
  • Use a strong encode method like WPA2 while setting up the Wi-Fi network access. This will be able to keep the network and communications secure.
  • Use a separate, strong and unique password for every device. Don’t share credentials with anyone unexpected.
  • Always keep the apps updated. Enable auto-updates on any IoT devices that support them.
  • Do not share the personally identifiable information (PII) like date of birth or social security numbers with service providers.
  • Most well-known brands like Amazon or Google feature review and delete voice history. So, it would be advisable to do so on a regular basis.

Accessibility in the Context of the Ethics of Smart Home Technology

From an accessibility perspective, smart home devices are essential devices persons with disabilities. It is important for people with disabilities to make their homes accessible, promoting self-reliance and letting them have the opportunity to live the life they want. The ability to open doors, control home temperature or turn on the light with only our voice has the potential to make the home more accessible than ever before.

In 2020, the vision of the smart home is more or less a reality. Companies like Amazon and Apple are using Alexa and Siri, respectively, to help us control almost every aspect of our home. 

However, as these product lines advance, one needs to consider the ethics of smart home technology before installing the latest and smartest device into a home that is shared with others.

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