Jun 24, 2019 - Technology

The steady erosion of privacy at home

Illustration of a house with a magnifying glass revealing binary code

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Public spaces are under constant surveillance from AI cameras, cellphone towers and advertisers that can follow people from home to work and back again.

But life inside the home, too, is increasingly transparent to watchful outsiders, the result of mushrooming internet-connected devices that consumers are setting up in their dens and bedrooms.

What's happening: Internet-connected devices can pick up your voice, interests, habits, TV preferences, meals, times home and away, and all sorts of other sensitive data. The gadgets send all this back to the tech companies where they were made.

The big picture: Constant surveillance at home is not yet a reality — but it's the direction we're moving in, says Jay Stanley, senior policy counsel at the ACLU.

  • Three main groups are peering into the home: tech companies, hackers and the government.
  • Companies receive data from "smart" things inside your home; hackers try to intercept it; governments can get it straight from the tech firms with a subpoena.
  • And most of this watching is enabled by the watched — residents who bring AI assistants, connected thermostats, video doorbells, "smart" appliances and even Wi-Fi lightbulbs into their own homes.

There are still "dumb" alternatives to nearly every internet-connected thing. You can still buy a toaster that does not have Alexa in it, or a lightbulb that's switched on with, well, a switch.

  • But year by year, the trade-off is becoming more dramatic. Keeping internet-connected tech out of your home will leave you increasingly far behind the convenience curve.
  • In some cases, it's not even up to you. Apartments are starting to come with connected devices preinstalled — to the horror of some privacy-conscious residents.

The massive spread of these devices introduce "enormous potential for abuse, for discrimination, and for shifts in power away from the individual and toward companies and agencies," says Stanley.

But people are increasingly OK being watched, as long as they get something out of it. According to an Axios/Survey Monkey poll, 70% of people are comfortable living with "smart home" devices.

What to watch: The home is still a sanctuary under the law — but the lines around it have become blurry.

  • "Technology can't change the fact that our homes are a key safe haven for our right to privacy, but it does make us vulnerable in new ways," says Jake Laperruque, a senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight.
  • Police need a warrant to search your home — but they can ask Amazon to hand over recordings from your kitchen-counter Echo without even telling you.
  • But in recent rulings, the Supreme Court has placed new limits on digital snooping without a warrant.
Go deeper