Smart devices, especially home appliances, have become more and more commonplace today, owing to IoT growth as well as consumer demand for convenience and constant connectivity. Another contributing factor is the increasing preference for energy-efficient home environments. The Middle East smart homes market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 24% during 2021-2026. In fact, most in-home consumer electronics already have a version that's pre-enabled with an AI assistant, from smart smoke detectors to security systems to vacuum cleaners to refrigerators to speakers to thermostats.
However, this new heights of convenience comes at a hidden cost for consumers, by exposing them to new forms of data surveillance. Called sensory surveillance, it refers to the practice of vendors passively gathering user behaviour data across all the human senses vision, smell, hearing, taste, touch, even mood— through the multi-sensory triggers embedded in these smart devices. In some cases, the smart tech vendors re-use or resell this customer information for targeted, though mostly unsolicited, ad-marketing campaigns.
The rapid growth of smart-home camera systems allows surveillance companies to 'see' what consumers see, inside or outside of their homes. They are aware of the families' everyday routine, when the kids get home from school, what time the mail is delivered, what eCommerce shipments usually arrive, and whether there are pets. Advancements in face detection even let these vendors know exactly who is visiting and when. All this data is more or less processed in the cloud.
It's almost impossible today to buy an electronic device that doesn't come integrated with a voice assistant. In exchange for voice command and app integration, consumers are being listened to around the clock. After all, smart speakers are always on and always listening. Some of Big Tech's smart assistants have constantly been under fire over the years for this alleged 'always-on' background recording, despite features like 'wake words' allowing the assistants to be in sleep mode unless called on. And it doesn't stop there. In some earlier cases, consumers have not even been aware that some of their devices contained microphones.
Thanks to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that are connected to the Internet, we have potentially opened the door to smell surveillance. Then there are lesser known or used technologies like electric noses that are fitted with biochemical sensors to help detect odours or flavours olfactory data that is aggregated and could be packaged and sold. With such technologies still in their nascent stage, smell-based ads continue to be a puzzle that hasn't been cracked yet. Fifteen years ago, it would seem unfathomable that what we as consumers smell in our own homes would be of any interest to technology vendors, but it might very well be on its way to becoming a monetisable asset.
Taste information like online grocery shopping, food delivery, and recipe downloads is now available to be easily aggregated (if it's not being done already) at the backend. Targeting consumers based on their eating habits is a huge business, and the collection of that data starts in the home through connected devices like refrigerators and follows customers into the grocery store or drive-through line or online reservation system.
From the movies and shows you watch to the music you listen to, to the websites you visit (thanks to the routers and WiFi devices provided by surveillance companies), there is a trove of information being monitored. When aggregated, this data paints a fairly clear picture of somebody's mood. In some cases, the companies might know how you are feeling by what you're watching even before you do, and that type of early detection is a precious advantage for advertisers and marketers. Similarly, health and fitness devices like activity trackers, smart pillows, heart rate and pressure monitors, electric toothbrushes, wearable stress sensors, food intake monitors, etc., collect on a daily basis how consumers are feeling mentally or physically or both. These are enormously valuable pieces of information for health and medical insurance companies.
Being tracked online is nothing new. There are already frequent reports and discussions about the security and privacy implications of this sensory data collection, especially by voice assistants. But time and again, as consumers, we accept such online tracking and surveillance practices as a necessary evil to enjoy a lifestyle of convenience.
Internet tracking which began with browser fingerprinting and quickly moved on to undeclared third-party cookies doing adjunct surveillance is now establishing itself through sensory techniques.
Combined together, these surveillance practices give tech vendors the power and information to clone every individual's digital doppelgänger with 'to the point' behavioural profiling and sell them off to advertisers without explicit user consent.
It remains to be seen if growing pressure from governments and consumers for better data privacy and greater transparency will push tech vendors to relinquish the practices or unfortunately, make them more creative in tracking us and serving us ads.
© Opinion 2021
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