If there's one thing we've learned over the past year, it's that tech companies don't care about its users and their privacy. Whether it's Facebook, Amazon, Google, or Ring, none of them seem to really care about our privacy. And that is something that needs to change, and quick.
By now, we all know about Facebook and its lack of caring about privacy. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal and many other issues it has had since then. But what's new now is Ring. Earlier this month, it was reported that Ring allowed its R&D team in Ukraine to watch clips that were recorded from its cameras in people's homes without their consent. And what made it worse was the fact that these clips were shared unencrypted.
Ring was reportedly viewing these clips so that it could build its own recognition software, in an effort to make their products better. As being able to recognize someone that lives there versus someone that doesn't, is a big a deal now. Users don't want to get a notification every time they walk in their front door and their doorbell sees them.
The company decided it was going to build its own recognition software, and viewing clips it already had, was the best way to do so. Except it wasn't. It's a blatant invasion of privacy. According to the report out of The Intercept, Ring employees saw everything, including couples making out right in front of the camera, as well as people watching TV. This is because Ring sells a whole lot more than just doorbells, but also cameras to put in and outside your home.
Ring did deny these accusations, that it never has and never will provide its employees with this ability to watch its customers without consent. Though, that does contradict some other reports – even before the massive report earlier this month.
Don't trust any tech company
In 2019, your data is the most valuable thing to basically any company. Google is able to provide a lot of its services for free, or at reduced costs, because it offsets the costs by collecting your data and using that to deliver ads to you. Remember, Google makes nearly 95-percent of its revenue from Ads. And collecting data helps it deliver better ads that are more likely to be clicked, and thus making it more money.
The same goes for Facebook actually, and seeing as we share just about everything that is going on in the world on Facebook, it has a ton of information about us already – possibly more than Google does. Facebook is also an ad company, so it is looking to use that data to help sell better ads to you.
This is being amplified now with these digital voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant. These assistants are always listening for you to say the magic word. But how do we know that it is only listening for that magic word and not hearing everything else you say in your home? Sure, they all have buttons available to turn off the microphone, but again, how do we know that the microphone is legitimately turned off?
It's nothing new, especially when it comes to Amazon Alexa. In fact, recently, Amazon sent thousands of Alexa recordings to the wrong user. That user was able to hear just about everything that the Alexa user was saying, not only to Alexa, but in general. This happened because the user asked for all the data that Amazon had of him – this is part of the rules of GDPR in Europe, companies have to provide that information – and Amazon gave him the wrong information.
Many of us put so much trust into these tech companies, thinking that they can do no wrong. And that is our mistake, we as consumers should know better. However, all of the services that these companies offer us, usually for free and ad-supported, are just so good that we are reliant on them.
YouTube for example, we all spend hours and hours on YouTube each day. But it's free, because of the ads that are shown on YouTube (there is YouTube Premium, but that is not required). Given recent events, we really need to think about how much trust we put into these companies.
With the Internet of Things becoming more mainstream, privacy is being sacrificed
To develop a lot of these Internet of Things products, it actually costs a fair bit of money to do so. Not only for the materials involved, but also all of the Research and Development that goes into it. But somehow companies, particularly startups who have virtually no money, are able to keep these products pretty cheap. This is because they are collecting your data to offset the costs.
This is particularly true with Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. These devices are already very inexpensive. The Echo Dot and Google Home Mini retail for $50. This is because the two are selling this hardware at cost, or making a tiny bit of profit off of it. This is because the real value is in you using their digital voice assistant. Both companies want you to use that assistant for everything that you do all day long.
The data that Amazon and Google collect are used to help improve its products, but to also sell you on things. Google uses it to sell you ads online, seeing as your Google account is used for the Assistant, as well as on your smartphone, laptop and everywhere else. It's easy to show you ads based on what you asked the Google Assistant for. When it comes to Alexa, it doesn't really sell you ads (yet). But Alexa is used as a window into the Amazon store. So if you ask Alexa about a certain thing, you may see it show up under the recommended items on Amazon's site the next time you log in.
Ring was not the first, and likely won't be the last Smart Home company to spy on you
Ring was the one that got caught. But with all of these companies offering cloud storage for you to save clips recorded from the cameras in and around your home, don't think that Ring was alone here. Though, Ring is under a bigger microscope now than in the past, since Amazon purchased the company last year. And Amazon isn't exactly known for protecting your privacy. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
What Ring was doing may have been on the up and up, only using the data to build its recognition software, but this is something that needs to be an opt-in feature. Allowing customers to opt-in to allow Ring to use that data, and perhaps even offering a bonus, like free cloud storage for storing their clips from their cameras. Ring did also make a few mistakes along the way because it wanted to save money. Primarily by sharing the video files among members of its R&D team, as unencrypted files. Data like that should always be encrypted, making it tougher for hackers to get a hold of.
There are others out there, like Arlo and Nest, that are likely doing the same thing. Since developing your own recognition software isn't easy. So if you're thinking of avoiding Ring now, since they "spy on users", you should be avoiding every company that makes security cameras for your home. Particularly WiFi-enabled ones.
This is the chance we take when we go all in with the smart home. There is the fear that these products can be hacked – as we saw recently with some Nest Cams that told people North Korea had launched missiles, even though it was untrue. But what could be even worse, is people being able to see everything you do in your home. So before you decide to get a security camera to put in your home, you're going to want to do some research, and outside is going to be better than inside.
Living in 2019 means giving up our privacy, at least until the government buts in and adds some regulation for these companies. Facebook, surprisingly, is asking for regulation on itself, after the pretty terrible year it had in 2018. But across all of tech, there needs to be some regulation. Users should be able to put security cameras in their home to protect their home, without worrying about other people watching everything they do in their home.
The Internet of Things and Smart Home world can really reduce a lot of issues these days. Like crime and package theft in neighborhoods. But as always, it means that we are sacrificing our privacy. That's something we should not have to sacrifice. But that is the age we live in right now.
Unless users want to pay more money for these products, then companies are going to continue to collect data on us and use it for different things. And it's not just in the IoT and Smart Home space. This is happening in the TV space, social media and just about every other space.
Update: Ring has responded to us with their comment regarding the story from a few weeks ago. Their comment is below:
"We take the privacy and security of our customers' personal information extremely seriously. In order to improve our service, we view and annotate certain Ring video recordings. These recordings are sourced exclusively from publicly shared Ring videos from the Neighbors app (in accordance with our terms of service), and from a small fraction of Ring users who have provided their explicit written consent to allow us to access and utilize their videos for such purposes. Ring employees do not have access to livestreams from Ring products.