The Snoop: What Price Convenience?

“They’re just so convenient.”

I heard that recently on the radio. The DJ was talking about Amazon “Smart Plugs”. 

If you haven’t been paying attention to the recent home automation craze, for $25 you can add voice control to any plug in your house.

Alexa, turn off the front light.

Alexa, turn on the coffee pot.

Alexa, turn off my curling iron. 

Convenience.

Amazon’s Superbowl ad this past weekend sold convenience by exaggeration, showing “Life before Alexa” as medieval, requiring servants, jesters, Dickens-esque newsboys, whiskey-jug playing wagonmen, and palace-living maidens all interacting with people or animals named some form of “Al” to get their tasks done.

“I don’t know what people did before Alexa,” says a character at the end of the ad.

I’ll tell you one thing we did before Alexa. Or Siri. Or Ring doorbells. Or Dropcams.

We had privacy in our homes.

Here’s a sampling of some recent headlines:

  • Amazon Staff Are Listening To Alexa Conversations — Here’s What To Do – Forbes.com
  • Google workers are eavesdropping on your private conversations via its smart speakers – USAToday.com
  • There Are At Least Eight Ways to Hack a Nest Camera – futurism.com
  • A hacker accessed a family’s Ring security camera and told their 8-year-old daughter he was Santa Claus – CNN.com
  • Apple apologizes for listening to Siri conversations – CNBC.com
  • Smart TVs May Be Watching And Listening In Your Home, FBI Warns – Patch.com

I used to own a technology company. I often talked with other tech-oriented business people. I remember one conversation with a fairly successful tech business owner. He had created an app that allowed radio and TV stations to schedule and track their paid advertisements.

The software sold well and he did OK.

But then he found a way to basically rake in the cash.

He called it “selling the exhaust.”

As each client in the field used his software, it “called home” to a centralized server owned by my colleague. He would then aggregate all of the data from all of his clients into one large database.

That database could answer a lot of high-level questions:

  • What ads were playing at 3:00 last Sunday? 
  • What advertisers favor the southern region of the USA? 
  • How much radio inventory is available at any given moment?

He found various advertising and media industry groups who would pay for the answers to those questions. 

That part of his business was much more profitable than the software he’d created.

Each time you find your finger hovering over the “Buy Now” button for some smart, connected device that promises to make your life more convenient, ask yourself a question:

  • Do I want details from my private life bundled up and sold as exhaust?
  • Do I want a company like Amazon or Apple profiting from data collected from my life?
  • What could happen if someone were able to hack this?
  • What convenience is my privacy worth?

Me? I’m perfectly happy to keep hitting that old fashion “dumb” light switch, thank you.