Modern Life

Little cameras everywhere: Our evolving relationship with privacy

As devices that “see,” “hear,” and collect personal data become ever-present, consumers and tech brands look to balance convenience with privacy.

By Garage Staff — October 1, 2020

Unopened, shrink-wrapped Amazon Echos sit in a cabinet in Karen Jaw-Madson’s home in Redwood City, California — mostly gifts from family members. Jaw-Madson, a management consultant, says she hasn’t put the devices to use because she and her husband are careful about safeguarding their digital privacy. They opted for a closed-circuit baby monitor, for instance, instead of an internet-connected version to avoid any possibility of hacking. 

“The thought about a device ‘always listening’ is too intrusive to us,” she says.

Like many people spending more time at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jaw-Madson has come to rely more on webcams, voice assistants, and other digital devices to keep working and stay connected with the outside world over the past several months. Even before the pandemic, households in the US had an average of 11 connected devices, and that number is expected to grow to 21 smart devices in every home by the end of 2023.  

But all that convenience and connection also comes with potential exposure and vulnerability. That tradeoff makes consumers like Jaw-Madson concerned that home surveillance — and the collection of data from connected devices — could lead to intrusive advertising, identity theft or used in aggregate with other consumers’ data to inform discriminatory practices or influence elections.   

In a recent HP survey, 26% of respondents said they are more concerned now about voice-assistant technology listening in on their conversations than they were before the pandemic hit, and nearly one-third said they’re more concerned about the potential for webcam hacking.

“We’re sort of in a transition right now where we’ve accelerated our use of digital systems, but we haven’t caught up with our feelings necessarily,” says Susan Etlinger, an analyst for the research and advisory firm The Altimeter Group. “Consumer attitudes tend to change as they’re faced with the impact of the choices that they’ve made, and so it takes a while for people to realize, ‘Oh, you know my [device] is listening to me.’”

More comfortable, but still cautious

The pandemic made newly remote workers and families with kids learning from home more reliant than ever on digital technology almost overnight, and out of sheer necessity.

In Oakland, California, Shelley Dubois, a managing supervisor at PR and digital marketing agency FleishmanHillard, has been working from home since mid-March. Dubois owns just two internet-connected devices — a computer and smartphone — but now spends significantly more time using both. 

“I’m definitely interacting with them more than I did before COVID-19,” Dubois says. “The other piece of that is so much of our entertainment — movies, streaming concerts, even communicating with friends — takes place virtually now, so it’s a lot more screen time.”

Cheryl Thuesday

Consumers have come to rely more on webcams, voice assistants, and other digital devices to keep working and stay connected with the outside world over the past several months.

All that time spent engaging with colleagues virtually has made Dubois feel more at ease integrating tech into her daily routines, but she’s still wary about broadcasting herself to the world. “I think I’m more comfortable showing myself on camera in my own home, but only to co-workers, not necessarily to anyone else.”

As the pandemic wears on, parents and educators must also contend with how remote learning affects children’s privacy. Experts suggest parents discuss with their children what privacy means to them and make them aware they have options outside of simply keeping their webcams on throughout classes, opting for audio-only communications or chat messages instead.  

Earning consumers’ trust in their tech

Tech companies, for their part, are acutely aware that privacy is on many consumer’s minds and that earning their trust through transparent communication and privacy practices is paramount.

“We’ve got a major trust deficit, and that trust deficit is growing between consumers and the institutions that serve those consumers,” said Kris Lovejoy, global advisory cybersecurity leader at the professional services firm EY, during an HP-hosted virtual cybersecurity panel in July. 

In recent years, businesses have worked to bridge this trust gap, making user privacy a priority, and in some cases, even a feature, giving people more control to choose when their webcams or virtual assistants are active. HP, for instance, rolled out its first laptops with a webcam kill switch in 2018 — a physical button that lets users cut off power to the built-in front-facing camera to protect users. HP also makes ultrawide monitors with cameras that users can slide back into the top bezel to block the lens whenever they choose. Likewise, several of Logitech’s webcams, which have sold out during the pandemic, include “privacy shutters,” or physical plastic shutter covers that slide over the webcam lens. And Amazon’s popular Alexa-enabled speakers sport a mute button users can press to turn off the devices’ mic whenever they want. 

“We’re sort of in a transition right now where we’ve accelerated our use of digital systems, but we haven’t caught up with our feelings necessarily.”

— Susan Etlinger, analyst at The Altimeter Group

“There are so many layers to trust,” says Simon Shiu, head of security at HP Labs. “That’s why we’ve spent the last 20 years building trust mechanisms into the devices and hardware we design. But I do think we need more rigorous ways to establish and compare why we trust one thing over another.”

Looking forward, consumers should expect new innovations in technology to come with an emphasis on privacy and security, and measures to keep people and their data safe. For example, Shiu notes the work HP is currently doing to advance edge computing, in which high-powered processing technology stores and analyzes data distributed devices instead of sending it to the cloud, will have implications for not only efficiency, but also assurance, trust, and privacy. 

“We’re all increasingly instrumenting our homes all the time, whether it’s the doorbell that’s connected to the internet, through to the devices that can record everything you’re saying and interpret in the cloud,” says Shiu. “If you could start to do more of that at the edge we have the advantage of knowing that your conversations aren’t going anywhere but in your house, so if we can raise the bar on trustworthy edge computing there could be benefits from the privacy perspective.”

Out of the house, but not out of sight

While many office workers are likely to continue working from home for the foreseeable  future, those who are returning to the office can expect more internet-connected devices in their work environment than ever before: contactless thermometer screenings and on-site thermal cameras for checking employee temperatures at the door, as well as “wave to unlock” technologies for opening doors that could require access to an employee’s smartphone.

Tech used for contact tracing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus could also become commonplace, including smartphone apps, wearables, or facial recognition technology, but rollout in the US has been bumpy so far. Smartphone apps to aid contact tracing haven’t gained traction in the US, and a data glitch in California in early August resulted in counties being unable to identify how many residents had tested positive for several days. Meanwhile, Clear, the 10-year-old startup that got its start helping travelers breeze through airport security checkpoints, launched Health Pass in May. The new product links COVID-19 information, including a health survey and temperature check, with biometric identifiers like face, eyes, and fingerprints to determine whether someone can safely enter a restaurant, sports arena, or museum. Clear is piloting Health Pass with partners across the country, amid concerns from privacy advocates and public health experts about accuracy and privacy.

Charles Blauner, former global head of information security at Citigroup and now chief information security officer-in-residence at the venture firm Team8, predicts people’s comfort with technology that “sees,” “hears,” and collects data will continue to grow as long as companies are more transparent and consumers are more educated, even as innovation accelerates. 

“We’ve proven we can move fast — no one’s going to slow down now,” he said, at HP’s virtual panel discussion in July. “I think the most lasting effect of this is that we will have gotten used to a much faster pace of change.” 


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