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Google and Amazon Build IoT Foundations with Smart Home Devices To Harvest More Data

Google and Amazon Build IoT Foundations with Smart Home Devices To Harvest More Data

Many believe that the future of automated life will revolve around smart homes. Smart home devices were one of the biggest trends of 2018 that is expected to continue well into 2019. Leading smart home players Google and Amazon introduced a bevy of new products to their portfolios, expanding the reach of Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa well into the living room.

However, multiple privacy concerns have been raised regarding the pervasivity of smart home devices. Even as the company’s spokespeople continue to maintain that the users’ voice is recorded only after the hotword is spoken, there have been situations wherein voices of users are recorded. Moreover, Google and Amazon have begun filing patents that aim to amplify the power of their devices with the power of always on microphones.

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Notwithstanding all of this, there is another unexplored paradigm when it comes to smart home devices. The amount of data they collect is utilised in a variety of ways, allowing some of the Internet’s biggest giants to move from your phone to your home.

Smart Hubs

Smart home devices include Amazon’s Echo speaker and Google’s Home. These devices allow users to interact with them using their voice, functioning as an assistant to tell the user about the weather, their schedule, or a multitude of other services. In conjunction with other smart home devices, these hubs can virtually automate chores such as vacuuming and grocery shopping.

These devices draw in customers with the promise of easing their everyday process, along with a low price in the sub-$100 range. This has now resulted in their wide adoption, setting the stage for the companies’ new range of ‘smart home’ products. This also pushes for the spread of IoT, as seen by the creation of the hub products for the control of smaller, ‘connected’ products.

However, these hubs are a part of Google and Amazon’s set of services that harvest data, with both companies having invested heavily into collecting user data. In fact, the devices themselves are being found to be sold at a big loss margin to the companies making them, further reinforcing their focus on collecting highly personal user data and converting it into assured conversions for advertisers.

Google is the internet’s biggest advertising company, and Amazon has a newfound focus towards utilising big data in a personalised way to recommend products from their selection. This form of surveillance has become a part of our everyday lives, with companies tracking everything from what websites we use, how much we scroll through them and multitudes of user data.

The Rise of The Assistants

The companies are stating that the primary purpose of the assistant-enabled products are to make the users’ lives easier. The privacy policy for the data collected by these devices informs the users that the data will be utilised by Google and Amazon for advertising purposes, but does not clarify to what extent. Even with the data being used for advertising, the raw sound of speech is also used as data to train speech recognition algorithms.

The companies maintain that the data is anonymised and removed of any personal identifiers, which removes any privacy concerns. This data is then fed to the Deep Learning-based algorithms that Google and Amazon use to detect what the user is saying. Google cuts up the voice samples into smaller bits and uses it to train WaveNet, its speech recognition platform. Amazon, on the other hand, uses Alexa queries to educate its AI about dialects and casual speech.

Amazon’s Adventures in Ad Land

Amazon in particular has shown itself to be pro-advertising, as they sell ad-supported mobile devices and collect rich consumer data from the actions of their consumers. Their actions are not only tracked on Amazon, but also on the sites owned by Amazon such as Zappos and IMDB. The data offered to the company by the use of Alexa in homes will offer it further tools in its arsenal to directly pitch products to consumers.

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It has even filed a patent that would eliminate the need for users to say “Alexa” to trigger the speaker. This would then allow Amazon to listen for information as long as the device is on, providing an avenue for user data to be siphoned. For example, this can be used for product suggestions based on the user’s conversations around the device. Amazon Echo products also boast of a technology known as Far Field Voice Recognition, which can potentially open up voice recognition of user data over even music and television noises.

Amazon’s new Echo Show product also has a camera built into it, although video calls are said to be encrypted between parties. However, a patent has been filed by Amazon that uses this to analyse footage of users’ home to gauge what kind of products they use. This is further linked with their search history to create a profile of what the user likes, allowing for a highly targeted form of advertising. Research showed that while those who do not own an Echo spend about $1000 on Amazon, Echo users spend $1700.

Google Grabs Home Data

The original data scraper has not fallen behind Amazon. While the Google Home did come out after the Echo, Google aims to bridge the gap by filing some of the most outrageously privacy-breaching patents in the field.

The company’s next big move in smart home devices could be in the way of something they call ‘inferences’. This is data not in the form of speech or information about customers’ preferences, but in the form of physical phenomenon. Inferences can be data about humidity, temperature, light levels and other physical statistics that can determine the position and activities that the users are engaged in.

This can be utilised to provide highly targeted advertisements to users of Google’s Home product, and thus make them more money. The information also contributes to Google’s profile of the user themselves, a digital identity pieced together by trackers and cookies across the Internet, and now, off it too.

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