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.”