Looks like corporate Big Brother might be watching your every move. Back in February US electronics company Vizio was forced to pay millions for secretly snooping on customers, but the TV tech giant isn’t the first corporation to go 1984 in peoples' homes. Amazon and Google have microphones in every room thanks to the Echo and Home, and Samsung and Microsoft can use cameras to watch you. Can you kit out your house with TVs, talking speakers and security cameras without getting spied on by the corporate entities behind them?
Sort of. While the best plan for snoop avoidance is a dumb home, here are some tactics to employ to keep your smart home out of your most private affairs.
Read the small print
Device makers know they’re going to get into a lot of trouble (like Vizio did) if they spy on you without your consent—tracking certain activities is often legal and above board, but companies must tell you what you’re getting into first.
That means you’re going to want to pour over the terms and conditions that come with your television or Wi-Fi kettle, tedious though it may seem. Find out what data is being sent back to base and which parts of your privacy you’re giving up for the latest gizmo.
If you’re not much of a speed reader, there are apps that can help—like the Terms of Service extension for your browser of choice, assuming the ToS you’re browsing is actually available somewhere online, and in the extension’s database.
EULAlyzer for Windows is another useful software helper, though again it’s limited to apps you’re actually installing on your computer, which may not apply to the various bits of smart home kit you’re setting up. If there’s an accompanying app to go with whatever you’ve bought it can come in handy.
You won’t find words like “snooping” or “spying” in there but pay particular attention to the monitoring and tracking policies, and anything that refers to personal data and data collection, as this is where the key terms will be.
Secure your devices
We can’t give you step-by-step instructions for securing every device out there, but a browse through the available menus and options should pay off—run a quick web search on every setting you find suspicious or don’t understand. As a last resort you can always tape over any mics or cameras you see.
On those troublesome Vizio TVs, for example, the relevant setting was under Smart Interactivity, under Reset & Admin, under System. That’s quite a lot of menu layers to work your way down through, so be as thorough as you can.
If you’ve got something made by Google in your home, like a Chromecast or a Google Home, head to your very own Google Activity page on the web. Google might slurp up a lot of data about you across multiple services, but it does at least try and make it easy to review what’s being collected and turn off different bits if you’re not happy about them (like a record of your searches across multiple products).
On the Amazon Echo, you can tap the microphone button on the top of the speaker and it will temporarily stop listening out for its wake command. To wipe everything the Echo has heard you say in the past, head to your Amazon account, click Your Devices, then click the button next to the Echo entry.
Secure your network
If you know your networking, you can use some well-chosen tools to protect your privacy and stop connected devices from phoning home to their corporate base.
We’ve talked about using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) before—but you need to install one at the router level (like PureVPN) or buy a router with a built-in VPN to stay protected, and even then it won’t necessarily stop devices reporting back to base. What it will do is make sure any transmitted data is encrypted and difficult to intercept.
An even more effective blocker is the firewall that should come with your router: you should be able to use this to place some restrictions on devices, though this is going to vary depending on the router you have, its firewall options, and the types of smart devices you’ve set up at home.
Lifehacker has a good introduction to some of the settings to be aware of but we’d recommend hitting up the support forums for both your router and your smart device of choice for more detailed advice. We’re also coming across a growing number of dedicated devices, like Cujo, Dojo, Fingbox, and Sense from F-Secure, intended to give you more control over your IoT-enabled home through a simple user interface.
As our homes get smarter, routers and firewalls should get better equipped to handle standalone devices—and better able to stop some of their activities—but in the meantime the best approach is to educate yourself about what your devices are doing and how you can get a handle on managing them.