Traditionally, devices that were tied to logins tended to indicate that in some way – turn on someone’s xbox and it’ll show you their account name, run Netflix and it’ll ask which profile you want to use. The increasing prevalence of smart devices in the home changes that, in ways that may not be immediately obvious to the majority of people. You can configure a Philips Hue with wall-mounted dimmers, meaning that someone unfamiliar with the system may not recognise that it’s a smart lighting system at all. Without any actively malicious intent, you end up with a situation where the account holder is able to infer whether someone is home without that person necessarily having any idea that that’s possible. A visitor who uses an Amazon Echo is not necessarily going to know that it’s tied to somebody’s Amazon account, and even if they do they may not know that the log (and recorded audio!) of all interactions is available to the account holder. And someone grabbing an egg out of your fridge is almost certainly not going to think that your smart egg tray will trigger an immediate notification on the account owner’s phone that they need to buy new eggs.
Things get even more complicated when there’s multiple account support. Google Home supports multiple users on a single device, using voice recognition to determine which queries should be associated with which account. But the account that was used to initially configure the device remains as the fallback, with unrecognised voices ended up being logged to it. If a voice is misidentified, the query may end up being logged to an unexpected account.
To be clear, I’m not arguing against the design choices involved in the implementation of these devices. In many cases it’s hard to see how the desired functionality could be implemented without this sort of issue arising. But we’re gradually shifting to a place where the data we generate is not only available to corporations who probably don’t care about us as individuals, it’s also becoming available to people who own the more private spaces we inhabit. We have social norms against bugging our houseguests, but we have no social norms that require us to explain to them that there’ll be a record of every light that they turn on or off. This feels like it’s going to end badly.
(Thanks to Nikki Everett for conversations that inspired this post)
(Disclaimer: while I work for Google, I am not involved in any of the products or teams described in this post and my opinions are my own rather than those of my employer’s)