If a genie were to grant your every household-management wish, you'd waste no time making demands: "Add milk to my grocery list"; "Lock the doors"; "Help my kid with algebra"!
The same kind of magic can be had in smart devices - for a price (in this case, your data). But internet-enabled products aren't going "poof" anytime soon. In fact, more than six in 10 parents say their young kids interact with voice-activated assistants.
So if you're weighing the pros and cons of products such as smart watches, smart speakers, and even smartphones that track pretty much everything you do, a peek behind the curtain will help you determine whether the benefits to your family are worth it.
This guide tells you all about smart devices - what they are, what they can do for you and your family, how to use them as safely as possible, and how to protect your family's privacy in a world increasingly powered by data.
What are smart devices?
The "smart" part refers to any device that communicates with other devices over the internet. These types of products can save time, effort, money, and even human life.
Smart speakers, such as Google Home and Amazon's Echo, make it easy to play music, get homework help, and make a grocery list. Smart thermostats and lights can reduce your energy bill. And smart medical devices can alert your doctor when your kid's asthma flares up.
How do smart products work?
Unlike "dumb" electronics, smart products use a combination of data and sophisticated software calculations to do what you want them to do. They can take information from a variety of sources, including human voices, sensors that monitor the environment, biometrics (thumbprints and faces), and apps, so every product performs a little differently for each person.
But the biggest difference between smart devices and regular ones are that they need you - specifically your data - to customise to your needs. And all that data needs to go somewhere, so it's usually stored in the "cloud" (basically, giant computer servers) out of your sight and mostly out of your control.
What are the different kinds of smart products?
- Wearables: smart watches, smart diapers, and smart sneakers.
- Home assistants: Google Home, the Echo, and Siri.
- Smart appliances: washing machines, refrigerators, coffeemakers.
- Connected home products: electrical outlets, lightbulbs, thermostats.
What are some useful, educational, and fun ways to use a home assistant?
Pretty much right out of the box, you can use voice commands to "wake" the devices (say, "Alexa" or "OK, Google") and ask them to do simple things like set a timer, tell a joke, or read a weather forecast. But to do more, you need to dig in to the companion smartphone apps to connect your accounts and enable your preferences.
Once you personalise your device, you'll be able to stream music from services like Spotify, Amazon Music, or Google Play Music. You can also select preferred news sources, restaurant delivery services, and more.
Home assistants can also help kids with reading, writing, and maths as well as tasks that involve organisation and time management. Scan the companies' website for the "skills" (for the Echo) and "actions" (for Google Home) and give them a try.
If you have an Echo, try these top Alexa skills. Learn more about how kids with special needs can benefit from home assistants. Find out how to be smarter than Alexa.
What kinds of information do smart devices collect?
Smart devices collect - at the very least - the data they need to provide you with the service they're offering. For example, your kid's location-aware watch tracks his whereabouts. A smart refrigerator tracks what food you buy. Home assistants track your requests. But they typically collect way more data than they technically need to do their job.
The watch still monitors your kid's location even when he's at home eating dinner and may also log which other watches are nearby it or track fitness metrics. The fridge may track every time someone opens the door. It's unclear how much Google Home and Amazon's Echo pick up of your home chatter, since they sometimes butt in to conversations unexpectedly.
Companies claim that they need this data to make their products work better. But they also use it to build consumer profiles to make educated guesses about what you're likely to buy in the future. These models are valuable, and they use them to sell you stuff or sell your data profile to other companies. For example, your fridge could sell your data to an ice cream company or a health insurance provider.
What is COPPA, and how does it protect my child?
COPPA stands for the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. It's a federal law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). COPPA prevents online companies from collecting and using data from kids under 13 without parental consent.
This is why nearly all social media companies set their minimum age requirement at 13 - because their business models depend on tracking users. Smart devices aren't allowed to knowingly track kids because of the COPPA rule, but when the devices are used in the home, they don't necessarily know the ages of all users.
How can I limit the data my smart devices collect?
Most connected products have privacy settings that put limits on the use of your data, such as how much the company can collect, what they use it for, how long they can keep it, and how you - as the source of that data - can interact with it. You can usually find privacy settings in your account profile on the company's website or on an associated app (which is often required to run a smart device).
Some privacy features, such as location services, can only be turned on or off. Some you can fine-tune. In the Alexa app that works with Amazon's Echo, for example, you can restrict Amazon from using your voice recordings for certain purposes. They may still collect this information; they just can't use it for purposes you've opted out of.
Some products won't work correctly or won't deliver everything they promise if you opt out of certain data collection. If you refuse to upload all your contacts to your home assistant (to protect your friends' privacy), you may not even be able to call one person on the device's call features.
Same with photos: If you have a smart photo frame, you may need to grant it access to all your photos for it to display even one.
What are the real privacy risks of using smart products?
Lack of transparency around data collection and use is one of the biggest risks. Collection and storage are cheap, and companies don't know today what they may want to do tomorrow. This is one reason they offer for collecting so much. So when you opt in to data collection now, you're often agreeing to future unknown uses of your data
Another unanswered question about smart home devices is how kids' information is being tracked, collected, and used by companies. Kids interact with these kinds of products all the time, including ones that capture their images such as security cameras, video monitors, and other smart screens.
While some products allow parents to set up user profiles for kids using these products, which may offer some extra protections, in general kids are fairly exposed because devices do not differentiate between data collected from grown-ups and data collected from kids.
Could my smart devices get hacked?
Your devices could get hacked. Many Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled products (especially cheaper products like kids' toys) don't use state-of-the-art secure connections, which makes you vulnerable to hackers who could get onto your network, get into all your accounts, and steal your identity. Learn what to do if you suspect a breach.
What's the safest way for my family to use smart devices?
Research shows that many families appreciate the benefits of smart devices such as home assistants that can help kids with homework and carry out parenting tasks. And most families really want more insight into how companies collect their data and what they use it for - they just don't know how to do it.
It's also true that many families actually like some of the extra benefits, such as grocery store deals and restaurant coupons, that they receive from the collection of their data. How you allow companies to use your data is, ultimately, up to you. Ideally, you are making an informed decision and know what you are agreeing to.
The tips below are optimal but not necessarily realistic for everyone - especially busy families. And most companies could do a lot better in making these things easier for us!
- Understand what companies collect. Read through the privacy policies of each product you enable. If you don't understand something, dig into the company's website - for example, their blog or the help section - to research specific topics. If you're not getting the answers you need, email the company or post a query on their social media.
Explore user forums - where other product owners gather to discuss issues related to the products - either on the company's own site or on other sites such as Reddit. Pay special attention to what companies collect "for future uses."
- Check privacy settings. Carefully review each privacy setting (usually found in the app associated with the product or in your user profile on the company's website). Pay close attention to any setting that is "on" by default.
- Use strong passwords - and make sure your kids do, too. Strong, well-protected passwords can thwart hackers looking for easy combinations to gain access to your information. Also, take advantage of additional security measures such as two-factor authentication.
- Protect children with parental consent. If kids will be interacting with smart devices and companies give you the option of setting up profiles for them, take advantage of that feature, as it can limit what's collected. If you want your kids to have, say, their own home assistant for their room, just make sure you enable all the privacy settings you can. To be ultra safe (some might think paranoid), you can turn off the device's microphone at night after the kids go to bed.
- Remind your kids to connect safely. Public networks are prime targets for hackers (both local and international), so try to avoid them. If you have to use a public network, consider downloading a VPN (virtual private network) and make sure to enable the browser setting "always use HTTPS" to add another layer of encryption to your data.
- Keep your software up to date. Companies release security updates on their software all the time, so you should definitely stay on top of the updates. And it's a good rule of thumb to recheck your privacy settings after an update. Also, make sure your virus protection is current.
If you opt for a free virus-protection download, do your research to make sure it's from a reputable company (some scammers imbed malware in their free offers).
- Periodically review your data. Some companies give you access to at least some of what they collect. Take a look at it and delete it if you don't want it on your history. Depending on the company, deleting it doesn't necessarily wipe it from the company's servers, so try to check how long the information is stored. That knowledge could come in handy if there's a breach.
- Model respectful communication with assistants like Alexa and Siri. Anytime you introduce a new technology into your home, you'll need to guide kids on how to use it and what the expectations are. It's best to remind kids that even though Alexa doesn't mind if you're rude, parents do.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organisation offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.
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