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IoT in the home: Hey Google, can I trust you?

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

The first major independent survey of Kiwis’ use of Internet of Things gadgets reveals strong uptake of smart devices but lingering concerns about privacy and surveillance. 

From Amazon’s Alexa-powered smart speakers to internet-enabled fridges and connected toys, one in ten New Zealand households are now using Internet of Things devices.

That’s according to Massey University researchers Dr Esther Jaspers and Dr Erika Pearson, who have surveyed a representative sample of 930 Kiwis, 397 of whom indicated they owned one or more IoT device at home.

“Domestic IoT refers to any home-based device that is connected to the internet, and uses that connection to perform automated tasks, such as smart speakers, IoT toothbrushes, automated lighting, and even children’s toys,” Pearson told InternetNZ’s NetHui conference yesterday where she and Jaspers presented the research findings.

Amazon’s Echo Show smart device

Where’s my data?

While 70% of survey respondents had concerns about their privacy in relation to IoT devices, it hadn’t stopped one in 10 households adopting them in one form or other. 

The survey, which was accompanied by 12 in-depth interviews with users of domestic IoT devices, found that those using the devices were younger, more frequently male, more highly educated and with higher incomes compared to non-users.

Other than the early-adopting gadget lovers, IoT device owners bought them out of curiosity and sometimes due to a classic driver of technology uptake – fear of missing out (FOMO). Buying decisions took into account the reputation of the device and its manufacturer, familiarity with a particular operating system ecosystem and the “general usefulness of the device”.

“While many brought one out of curiosity, if it didn’t serve a purpose, it was unplugged,” says Jaspers.

Massey University researchers Erika Pearson and Esther Jaspers speaking at NetHui

IoT users expressed concern about how their data, such as voice commands given to a smart speaker or records of device usage, was being reused or shared with third-parties to target advertising at device users. 

“Surveillance by the state was nowhere near as significant a concern, but several respondents noted that this might change in the future,” says Pearson. 

“We also identified some emerging issues. Firstly, there was a growing question as to where the privacy would soon become a privilege to be paid for. This was tied to concern around scope creep.“

As more IoT devices became networked together in the home, there was concern that they might be used for “punitive surveillance” especially as people became more used to living with live mics and always-on cameras.

Privacy fatigue sets in

But “privacy fatigue” was also setting in among users who had to juggle the trade-off of divulging data with getting good functionality out of IoT devices.

“That may fuel concepts of privacy as a privilege or that privacy is dead,” says Jaspers.

“Overall, we need to more clearly understand the privacy impacts of third party use that may not be clear at the point of disclosure. We need to pay more attention to enabling ongoing control of personal data in the trade-off for functionality,” she says.

The researchers also recommend paying more attention to groups such as the elderly, children and those who use the devices for accessibility, such as those with loss of sight or other disabilities.

The research project received $23,838 in funding from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and wrapped up as the Australian Government progresses a voluntary code of practice for IoT device makers to encourage them to offer more secure devices.

Samsung’s internet-connected fridge

While the likes of smart speaker makers Google and Amazon have a good reputation for security, IoT gadgets span a wide range of formats and manufacturers. Many of them have been shown to have serious security flaws.

A 2017 study commissioned by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network and undertaken by researchers from the University of New South Wales, tested the security of 20 Wi-fi-controlled household devices.

They found that all of the devices ranging from smart TVs to a Barbie doll, had at least one type of security flaw, and some of them were serious.

“On a personal level, you could be spied on and harassed. Personal pictures or information could be exposed to the world, or used to extort you,” say UNSW researchers Dr Kayleen Manwaring and Professor Roger Clark, who weren’t co-authors of the security study.

“On a societal level, IoT devices can be hijacked and used collectively to shut down services and networks. Even compromising one device may enable connected infrastructure to be hacked. This is a rising concern as more people connect to workplace networks from home.”

They are encouraged by the Australian government’s efforts to get a code of practice in place but fear it will not work as a voluntary scheme.

“A better option would have been a ‘co-regulatory’ approach. Co-regulation mixes aspects of industry self-regulation with both government regulation and strong community input,” they argue. 

“It includes laws that create incentives for compliance (and disincentives against non-compliance) and regulatory oversight by an independent (and well-resourced) watchdog.”

Still, a voluntary code puts Australia further along than New Zealand where IoT devices are increasing in use but have received little if any regulatory scrutiny.

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

The definition of the Internet of things has evolved due to the convergence of multiple technologies, real-time analytics, machine learning, commodity sensors, and embedded systems. Traditional fields of embedded systems, wireless sensor networks, control systems, automation (including home and building automation), and others all contribute to enabling the Internet of things. In the consumer market, IoT technology is most synonymous with products pertaining to the concept of the "smart home", covering devices and appliances (such as lighting fixtures, thermostats, home security systems and cameras, and other home appliances) that support one or more common ecosystems, and can be controlled via devices associated with that ecosystem, such as smartphones and smart speakers.

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