Consumer Reports: Is Your Coffeemaker Tracking You?

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Investigation into the Internet of Things Reveals Privacy Concerns; Six Ways to Reduce Exposure

Cover of June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine

Do you want the disappointing readout on your smart scale to translate into ads for diet plans on your smart phone? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t – but the choice ought to be yours

Thanks to the growing constellation of smart devices collectively know as the Internet of Things, common everyday devices can offer an appealing level of convenience quite literally by collecting data on the habits of users. But a new investigation by Consumer Reports revealed that the convenience can come with a trade-off: These devices can also send a steady flood of personal data to corporate servers, where it’s saved and shared, and can be used in ways consumers can’t control.

The report, “In the Privacy of Your Own Home,” is available in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at ConsumerReports.org.

Though websites and smartphone apps have long been following users’ activities, Internet-connected devices – ranging from baby monitors to door locks – now gather data from some of the most private spaces of our lives, Consumer Reports found. And without proper safeguards, all of the data that different devices and sites have collected can be combined, then exploited by marketers or stolen by hackers.

“Consumers may or may not worry about being monitored by their appliances – but they need to know it’s happening,” said Glenn Derene, electronics editor at Consumer Reports. “We think that manufacturers of smart devices should tell consumers in easy-to-understand language about the types of information being collected by those devices and how that information could potentially be shared, sold, and used. And they should also give consumers options to control the collection and use of their data.”

An analysis by Consumer Reports in cooperation with Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology showed that many privacy polices for connected devices are vague, confusing, and sweeping. When the effects of some of these policies are revealed, consumers may be shocked. For example, in February, the media reported that LG and Samsung smart TVs allowed those companies to transmit household conversations to third parties. But the privacy policies didn’t clearly explain when the TVs were recording or where the voice data was going – nor promise that the data wouldn’t be used for other purposes in the future.

“Do you want the disappointing readout on your smart scale to translate into ads for diet plans on your smart phone? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t – but the choice ought to be yours,” said Derene. Although some of the companies that sell connected devices currently promise not to use the collected data for advertising and promotion, that could change at any time in the absence of regulation.”

Consumers who don’t like the idea of being tracked by their devices may think they have only two options: Avoid technology altogether or simply surrender to the surveillance. But for most smart products, there are strategies that can at least restrict how much information gets collected. Here are six ways to reduce exposure:

1.    Password-protect anything that collects personal information. Many smart devices are managed through Internet-based accounts. Some have pass codes you can enter on the device as well. Use both.
2.    Read the privacy policy. We know they’re often long and indecipherable. But if you want an indication of the kinds of information your device is tracking, that’s where you’ll find it.
3.    Find the “off” toggle in the settings menu on your smart device. Often, features that track you are given a line-item on-off toggle. On smart TVs, for example, you can switch off voice control and “interactive” functionality.
4.    Don’t leave connected devices on when you’re not using them. Certain Internet-enabled devices are hooked to the Internet 24/7 by necessity, but a connected baby monitor doesn’t need to be streaming video from junior’s crib when your baby is in your arms.
5.    Install security updates. Device makers need to get serious about automatically pushing out security updates. But consumers would be wise to periodically check the manufacturer’s website to see whether their device has a patch, and update, or new firmware.
6.    Take it offline. If Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity in a product doesn’t offer a tangible benefit to you, buy the non-connected version.

For more information on the Internet of Things, connected devices and privacy, the full article is available at ConsumerReports.org and in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

About Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports is the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit, consumer organization driving marketplace change to improve the lives and amplify the voices of consumers. Founded in 1936 Consumer Reports has achieved substantial gains for consumers on food and product safety, financial reform, health and other issues. The organization has advanced important policies to cut hospital-acquired infections, prohibit predatory lending practices and combat dangerous toxins in food. Consumer Reports independent testing and rating of thousands of products and services is made possible by its member-supported 50 plus labs, state-of-the-art auto test center and consumer research center. Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports, works for pro-consumer laws and regulations in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. With more than eight million subscribers to its flagship magazine, website and other publications Consumer Reports accepts no advertising, payment or other support from the companies whose products it evaluates.

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