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For smart home owners, convenience tops privacy concerns

| Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, 1:33 a.m.
Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that convenience tops privacy concerns for users of smart-home technology.
Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that convenience tops privacy concerns for users of smart-home technology.

George Orwell got a lot right about our society moving toward a state of constant surveillance, but not everything.

“His presumption was that people would lament and be depressed and oppressed by all these devices that can watch them and listen in,” said Matthew Rathbun, executive vice president of Coldwell Banker Elite. Instead, “it seems to be that we’re running toward them with glee.”

We set up motion detectors in our homes. We install cameras. We speak to Google Homes and Amazon Echoes as we would actual humans and allow them to listen in on our daily lives.

As a real estate agent, Rathbun has increasingly found a need to familiarize himself with this technology. According to a 2017 University of Washington report, there are hundreds of millions of smart-home devices in more than 40 million U.S. homes, and that number is expected to double by 2021.

Although some of Rathbun’s clients remain apprehensive about devices that can collect intimate data — think of how often we hear news stories about hacking, he noted — more of them seem to view home automation positively. People who use these devices accept what could be at risk, he added.

The trust factor

We don’t hesitate to download navigation apps on our smartphones, and those give companies constant access to our physical locations. What makes these gadgets any worse?

“For most of us, there’s a little bit of a trust factor,” Rathbun said. “If Amazon and Google and Apple start giving up our personal data to whomever — to government agencies, to private industries — then people will stop buying their products the second they find out.”

Until then, we prioritize convenience.

Interior decorator Iantha Carley said that although she would “never have Alexa” because of a fear of being overheard, she has no problem using her phone to turn on her lights, an ability she said is “not intrusive.”

Day-to-day concerns

Carley and Rathbun’s words reflect research conducted by Eric Zeng, a graduate research assistant at the University of Washington. Along with collaborators Shrirang Mare and Franziska Roesner, he interviewed 15 smart-home owners in depth about their privacy concerns.

Although participants were aware of security issues such as data collection, surveillance and hacking, “most were not concerned about these issues on a day-to-day basis,” the report found. No one mentioned a negative experience that involved the companies, hackers or the government, he said.

Cohesive experience

Companies such as Vivint, a leader in smart-home technology, have taken note of our priorities. Vivint’s chief technology officer, Jeremy Warren, said the company focuses on “being the easy button” for homeowners. It integrates smart devices — doorbells, indoor and outdoor cameras, locks, thermostats and more — into a cohesive experience, so that “you don’t have to use eight different apps to control things.”

Running toward high tech

We’ve heard a great deal more horror stories about Facebook data breaches than we have about hackers controlling devices installed in living rooms. It could be possible for knowledgeable people to hack smart devices — former Forbes writer Kashmir Hill was able to gather sensitive information from eight different smart homes in 2013 — but companies have increased security measures to prevent outsiders from doing so.

Warren insisted Vivint’s technology is secure, and company representative Liz Tanner emphasized the “encrypted” nature of it all: The systems have encrypted passwords; the company works on an encrypted Wi-Fi network; video footage is encrypted from Vivint’s hub to the cloud and back again.

We’ve been running toward high-tech convenience for years, Warren said.

Rathbun credited much of this to “the promise of cool,” and Curry added that it doesn’t hurt that the “Apple factor” has made devices sleeker. Think of Nest thermostats, for instance: “The design of that thermostat is an example of what has made this market start moving,” he said. “If you’re putting these in your home, they can’t be ugly.”

There is a simple cost- benefit analysis: data privacy vs. convenience. For now, Curry said, the latter seems to be winning.

Sonia Rao is a Washington Post writer.

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