In part one of our look at the emerging infrastructure of smart home technology, we considered how the world’s most popular smart device, the Amazon Echo, was designed to record and store your every command. Far from being incidental, this feature was core to the device’s design. Not only did it allow Amazon to develop Alexa’s voice recognition capacities, but it also allowed the company to continue expanding its massive data-gathering operations.
In this post, we’ll look more closely at how Amazon’s attempt to extract as much data as possible from its customers is guiding its current and future steps in the smart home market. We’ll examine how a consistent lack of transparency over what data is collected – and what it’s used for – is a key strategy in maintaining user consent and evading oversight. Finally, we’ll consider the forced choice between giving up our data or being left out of the smart home revolution – and ask if there might not be a different way forward.
Amazon’s data-hungry plans for the future of the smart home
The Amazon Echo is emblematic of the smart home market today, but it is only one of Amazon’s many Alexa-enabled smart devices currently available. In 2018, Amazon acquired Ring, a manufacturer of smart doorbells and other internet-enabled home security devices. Given Amazon’s past form, it should be no surprise to discover that Ring is currently the market leader in this area, selling 1.4million video doorbells in 2020. Ring doorbells offer a wide range of security-boosting features for homeowners, including remotely live-streaming audio and video from the doorbell’s built-in camera to your smartphone. The doorbells can also be configured to automatically record both audio and video when their motion detectors sense that someone is nearby.
In order to offer these features, your Ring doorbell must, as its privacy notice relates, “process and store […] video or audio recordings, live video or audio streams, images, comments, and data [it] collect[s] from [the] surrounding environment.” As a result, Ring (and by extension, Amazon) is able to gather an ever-growing database of audio and video recordings of people entering and leaving your home, as well as data about how often, and at what time, your front door is used. As with the Echo, such data-gathering is presented as key to the personalisation features that the doorbell offers. It is only by gathering data on your behaviour, the argument goes that a smart device can be tailored to your needs. And if it can’t do that, then what use does it have?
But for Amazon, the features offered by the Echo and Ring devices are just the first steps. Amazon has much bigger plans in the offing for features that future Alexa-enabled devices will offer – and the data they will collect to perform them.
In September, Amazon announced its forthcoming “home robot” Astro. Astro can obey commands to go to a specific room – though to do so, it needs to map out the floor plan of your home. It can also learn your specific habits, including the part of the house you tend to spend the most time in. It will also include a “sentry” mode that will cause it to follow any people it does not recognise until it is told not to. To enable these extremely useful personalisation features, Astro needs to store an image of your face for its facial recognition system. As a Vice investigation into the plans for the robot stressed, the Astro is essentially “a surveillance device that tracks you and everyone who enters your home.” At this point, we should perhaps no longer be surprised.
The ongoing battle over access to your private data
It is clear, then, that the Echo’s mass recording of user audio and tracking of interactions was simply the first step in a new campaign for data supremacy. By integrating ever-more smart home devices into a single Alexa-enabled network, the amount of information Amazon will be able to accumulate on its customers is virtually limitless. What is more, by extracting this data from their customers’ most intimate spaces, using devices that by design escape notice and merge into their surroundings, they will be able to make this data harvesting almost invisible.
Of course, Amazon is not alone in hoping to gain access to the highly lucrative user data sources opened up by smart home tech. Indeed, Shoshana Feldman’s go-to example in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (discussed more fully in part one) was Google’s Nest smart thermostat. In order to perform many of its automated smart functions, the Nest thermostat adapts to its environment, “learns” the behaviour of a home’s inhabitants, and interconnects with other smart devices. As a result, it can join a complex, interoperable network of devices capable of performing various tasks, from playing music and providing weather reports to triggering audio and video recording. And Zuboff stresses that to do so, it must record and transmit vast quantities of personalised data to Google’s servers. Perhaps it was unintentionally revealing that Rick Osterloh, Google’s SVP of Devices & Services, admitted that he would tell his guests that smart devices were in use before inviting them into his home.
With this in mind, Amazon’s rapidly expanding range of smart home devices is best understood as their attempt to outpace the competition and secure privileged access to what goes on inside your home – your habits, routines, and preferences, as well as those of anyone else who happens to be there.
But what are the dangers of this world of smart home surveillance into which we seem to be wondering, largely unawares?
In the first instance, there are obvious ethical issues to this mass-scale rendering of personal data. To have one’s private spaces transformed into a source of data – and thus, ultimately, of profit – for some of the world’s largest corporations is, at the very least, a troubling prospect. As the pioneer researchers of the Georgia Tech Aware Home project understood, having control over who has access to your home is precisely what makes it a home in the first place. Ceding this control should not be an easy decision – and, more importantly, it should not be one we take blindly.
Unfortunately, making an informed decision about how much of your data you are willing to share in exchange for the advantages of smart home tech is, in practice, almost impossible. But, as we’ll see below, while Amazon is publicly keen to downplay the extent of its data-gathering operations and emphasise user choice over what is shared, the reality is much more complex.
Amazon’s lack of transparency over data collection
As we discussed in part one, 2019 saw several attention-grabbing headlines over the Echo’s voice recording features – features that are, in fact, fundamental to how the device operates. However, a key part of the furore was the revelation that some of these voice recordings were “manually reviewed” by thousands of Amazon staff members and third-party contractors in a process called data annotation. As Amazon tried to emphasise, the goal of these reviews was innocuous: to improve Alexa’s capacity to process voice commands, some degree of manual accuracy checking was necessary. Understandably, however, the prospect of having your private conversations listened to by anonymous strangers caused widespread alarm.
This alarm was only exacerbated because – as with Alexa’s voice recording function more generally – users were mostly unaware such manual reviews were happening. Amazon technically informed users that anything they said to Alexa might be recorded and listened to by others, but the information was neither clearly displayed nor easily accessible. In response to the outcry, Amazon gave users the option to opt out of manual review, but doing so required users to navigate deep into the device’s settings menu. Further, the rollout of this new option was not actively publicised by Amazon. Instead, it was discovered after the fact by security researchers.
This is emblematic of the approach Amazon has taken to data privacy. By offering some limited personalisation settings – often in response to specific controversies – Amazon is able to claim that users have control over the data they share. In practice, however, the specific details of how Amazon uses your data are buried in a range of detailed, often highly legalistic documents.
Amazon’s Privacy Notice, for example, is almost 4500 words long. While the Privacy Notice does list a wide range of data Amazon collects about users – including “content interaction information” and “device usage information” – it also makes clear that this is not an exhaustive list. Instead, it only provides “examples” of the types of information they “might” collect. And while the notice indicates Amazon also “analyses” this data, it does not say how it does so.
Finally, and most significantly, the privacy settings users can take advantage of are generally opt-out rather than opt-in. The actual process for changing privacy settings can be difficult to follow, requiring users to navigate through multiple menus. Moreover, Amazon will often roll out new features for its smart devices and auto-enrol users in them without clearly informing them. Finally, Amazon takes pains to stress that if you do opt out of some of their data collection practices, “you might not be able to take advantage of many of our Amazon Services.”
The value of this strategy is clear. Amazon can claim to be informing its customers about the data it collects and offering them some degree of control. But by making this information difficult to access and understand and making invasive data collection the default option, it can ensure that only the smallest proportion of users actually exert this control – and only at the expense of limiting the functionality of their Amazon devices.
It seems that this approach has served Amazon well thus far. While Facebook continues to fall foul of public scandals over its myriad data privacy issues, Amazon has managed to remain above the fray. The Axios Harris 100 poll – an annual US-based corporate reputation survey – placed Amazon as the 10th most trusted business in 2021, while Facebook languished in 98th. For the moment, at least, Amazon’s data-gathering Trojan horse has been widely successful, slipping into the homes of millions of users across the world with only the most limited recognition of its true purpose.
Ultimately, the question of whether we are willing to offer our data to Amazon in exchange for using Alexa-enabled devices is a personal one. Nevertheless, Amazon’s continued lack of transparency over what data is collected and how it is used should give everyone pause for thought. How can users make a truly informed decision about their privacy when information is hard to locate, difficult to understand, and even potentially misleading?
In many respects, this is the heart of Amazon’s smart tech gambit: most users won’t even be aware of what they’re giving up in exchange for the convenience of being able to ask Alexa to play their favourite song or answer the door on their behalf. From the thousands of Amazon employees potentially listening to your private interactions to law enforcement agencies getting access to your doorbell camera without needing a warrant, many people are exposing themselves to unknown risks for relatively minor benefits.
Beyond the privacy dilemma: The impact of cloud outages on smart home tech
Of course, privacy is not the only issue surrounding the emerging smart home infrastructure as driven by big tech companies like Amazon. The use of highly centralised, cloud-based data processing for smart devices is not just a privacy issue. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, it can also lead to highly disruptive outages that may even render devices unusable for prolonged periods. For example, Amazon’s cloud service AWS saw its third major outage of the year last week, taking down not only major sites that run on AWS, including Netflix and Disney+, but also Echo devices and Ring doorbells. Ring users reported being unable to disable their alarms or to access their cameras, depriving them of critical functions and even potentially preventing them from getting into their homes.
As ever-more smart home devices are adopted – the Amazon smart fridge, for example – the potential impact of such outages grows. It is not hard to envisage homes rendered effectively uninhabitable for indefinite periods as a range of major appliances suddenly can’t be used. Whatever the benefits to daily convenience, the risk seems hard to justify.
But whether we focus on privacy concerns or the likely impact of cloud outages, it can be hard to see a solution. It can often seem that we face a stark choice – give up our data to big tech or be left behind as the smart home revolution rolls inexorably onward. And this, of course, is to the benefit of Amazon and others seeking to extract the greatest possible amount of data from as many different sources as possible. As the writer Joanna Kavenna remarks, big tech companies and their supporters will “often claim that if you’re opposed to this, you’re a neo-Luddite. That myth has allowed a lot of people to become incredibly rich.”
But if we do not want to get caught up in the forced choice between losing control of our data or getting left behind, we need to ask: what other options do we have?
A decentralised alternative to Amazon’s smart home dystopia
In recent years, the continued development and rapid adoption of blockchain technology, alongside other innovations emerging from the cryptocurrency space, have led to visions of a radically different future for the web.
For the past two decades, Web 2.0 has been shaped by the forces of surveillance capitalism, dominated by highly centralised platforms whose principal goal is to capture user attention and serve this up to advertisers. The emphasis on data extraction that we have discussed above are the means to this end, enabling advertisers to target customers and track their behaviour in a truly unprecedented way.
By contrast, Web 3.0 is increasingly being imagined as a decentralised, open, and trustless space in which individuals are able to recover their sovereignty – and that includes being able to assert meaningful control over their data. Thus, rather than trusting a centralised entity such as Amazon by agreeing to their opaque privacy policies and end-user license agreements, users will be able to make clear, informed decisions about their data.
Platforms built on blockchain technology will be able to give users a fully transparent sense of how their data is being used and shared, as well as allow them to participate in decisions about how the platform operates and any future developments. The integration of utility tokens into blockchain-driven platforms will further allow users to be adequately compensated for their involvement in and contribution to these platforms – including, for instance, the data they share.
But what does this all mean for the future of the smart home?
While the use of blockchain technology to operate smart devices remains in the early stages, it is clear that smart tech founded on a decentralised infrastructure will be vital to escaping the all-consuming net of surveillance capitalism and reestablishing control over our data.
One of the key elements of the emerging Web3 infrastructure will be decentralised cloud computing. As we’ve mentioned above, the reliance on the cloud to process smart tech interactions was at the root of the controversies over the Echo’s voice recordings. It also greatly exacerbates the risks of significant, debilitating outages that could render your smart home uninhabitable.
Cudos is striving to build precisely such a decentralised cloud computing architecture. The Cudos network is powering a highly scalable, environmentally friendly, and secure alternative to the centralised cloud. It allows users to draw on massively distributed compute resources without recourse to any central authority – and without the risk of singular points of failure.
The uses for such decentralised cloud computing are endless, ranging from NFT minting to video rendering – and of course, processing the data generated by smart home devices.
Far from being presented with a forced choice between rejecting the smart home revolution or giving up even more of your data to big tech, we are increasingly moving toward an entirely new future for the web – a future in which a massively interconnected and optimally automated world does not require us to accept widespread surveillance.
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The Cudos Network is a layer 1 blockchain and layer 2 computation and oracle network designed to ensure decentralised, permissionless access to high-performance computing at scale. It enables scaling of computing resources to 100,000’s of nodes. Once bridged onto Ethereum, Algorand, Polkadot, and Cosmos, Cudos will enable scalable compute and Layer 2 Oracles on all of the bridged blockchains.