How to Stop Your Smart Home Spying on You

March 10, 2020

Everything in your smart home, from the lightbulbs to the thermostat, could be recording you or collecting data about you. What can you do to curb this intrusion?

During an interview with the BBC last year, Google’s senior vice-president for devices and services, Rick Osterloh, pondered whether a homeowner should disclose the presence of smart home devices to guests. “I would, and do, when someone enters into my home,” he said.

When your central heating thermostat asks for your phone number, your TV knows what you like to watch and hackers can install spyware in your home through a lightbulb security flaw, perhaps it’s time we all started taking smart home privacy issues more seriously. Just this week the National Cyber Security Centre issued a warning to owners of smart cameras and baby monitors to review their security settings.

You can get a quick overview of privacy options for many smart home devices using the Mozilla “*privacy not included” guide; however if you’ve already invested in particular technology, all is not lost. A few configuration tweaks could help put you back in control when it comes to balancing device performance with data privacy (and they don’t involve wearing anything like the ludicrous-looking “bracelet of silence”, which jams smart device microphones, as recently demonstrated by a team from Chicago University).

When the FBI, no less, warns users that their televisions could be listening to and watching them, maybe it’s time to reflect upon how dumb we are when it comes to smart TVs. Let’s face it, most of us buy a big TV with all the internet streaming and programme guide functionality we can afford and kick back in front of it. Beyond the initial tuning in of stations and maybe adjusting the colour to our taste, there’s not much configuration tweaking that goes on – which is a mistake when both privacy and security issues are in the picture.

TVs nowadays connect to the internet, have web browsers, run apps, and can be controlled by your voice; automatic content recognition (ACR) watches what you see, from TV programmes to games, and the resulting data can target you for personalised advertising and produce viewing recommendations – often across various platforms.

You probably agreed to ACR being used when you were setting up your new telly. To disable it – although this varies from TV to TV – head for the general or advanced settings and look for a “viewing information” or “viewing data” option. This will stop some “smart” things like recommendations, and even some voice activation functions, from working properly, so bear in mind that ACR data is anonymised before heading for the off button.

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