What are you doing while you are watching my ad?

Google home Ok Google - ads about to trigger devices in people's homes

Advertisers want to know how we’re using our smart devices – and what we’re doing while watching their ads.

For a growing number of consumers in the US, devices delivering the “smart home” – which not that long ago seemed the standard representation of Jetsons-esque futurism – are becoming increasingly commonplace.

A recent report showed that the market for home-automation devices enjoyed growth of 57 per cent in the US from 2015 to 2016.

The UK market, by contrast, has so far appeared slow to match such dramatic uptake. There are thought to be more than four million UK households that are “smart” in some form, but it appears fascination with the Internet of Things has a way to go before making a breakthrough into the mainstream. Something that puts people off is concern over security.

For every cool doorbell camera or fridge that talks back, there seem to be regular warnings of potential security breaches by devices that might unlock your doors or set off your fire alarms.

Super Bowl

So anyone worried about such vulnerabilities won’t have been particularly soothed by a couple of recent developments that might prove even more troubling.

During the Super Bowl, for example, Google ran a commercial showing happy, smiling consumers using their Google Home devices to check the weather, translate phrases into Spanish, turn on their lights and generally make their lives easier. There was just one problem, as Fortune reports – the command  “OK Google” was distinct enough in the ad to activate devices in viewers’ homes.

Here’s that Google Super Bowl ad:

While the numbers affected are unknown, something similar also happened in January. The Verge reported that Alexa, Amazon’s smart home device, was triggered – ironically – by a broadcast news report about a little girl using the device to order a doll’s house.

While these were described as “inadvertent” occurrences, any breach of the sanctuary of the living room will inevitably reawaken privacy concerns.

With consumers generally aware that “smart interactivity” brings with it the potential for corporate eavesdropping, there was also a slightly more ominous development last week when smart TV manufacturer Vizio paid more than $2m to settle charges that it had installed software on more than 11 million sets that tracked viewing histories and collected data without the owners’ knowledge.

The US Federal Trade Commission said in a statement:

“On a second-by-second basis, Vizio collected a selection of pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV, movie and commercial content. What’s more, Vizio identified viewing data from cable or broadband service providers, set-top boxes, streaming devices, DVD players and over-the-air broadcasts. Add it all up and Vizio captured as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs.

“Vizio then turned that mountain of data into cash by selling consumers’ viewing histories to advertisers and others.”

Family

Media consultant Graham Lovelace says the potential advantages to advertisers of knowing exactly who’s watching their ads, when and – importantly – what they think of them are obvious, and will only grow.

“AI will eventually recognise family members, learn their individual viewing tastes and habits and create a detailed record of their viewing choices – as well as what they say as they watch TV. TV ads could even activate voice assistants so they capture what we’re saying about brands.”

Rick Paulas wrote recently at Pacific Standard that security flaws in connected devices represent a potential crisis for the Internet of Things. He says: “Something that makes the IoT problem different from other security problems is that there’s really no sound way to add security to the devices already out there.”

Meanwhile, as voice-activated assistants continue to become ubiquitous, another high-profile legal grey area resulting from the increasing interconnection of our real and virtual lives was raised before Christmas. This came about when police in Arkansas sought to access data from a smart home device to help with a murder inquiry.

“Alexa. Whodunnit?”

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