Go Ahead, I’m Listening …

(courtesy of American Land Title Association)

We’ve all probably experienced a scenario like thisYou’re having a conversation about something and later that day you’re bombarded by online ads for the product. You don’t really want a life-sized stuffed unicorn, but you happened to mention one while talking to your five-year-old and now your social media feeds and search results are full of ads for giant plush monstrosities.

Last year, PCMag surveyed 2,075 U.S. consumers about their smart devices and media consumption preferences. The survey found privacy was the top concern. A majority—68%—of respondents said they believe smart home devices listen to you when you aren’t aware and share the data with the companies behind the products: Amazon, Apple, Google, and even Facebook.

It’s been reported Amazon employs people to listen to what’s said near Alexa-enabled Echo devices. The workers transcribe, annotate and enter anything learned into Alexa’s underlying software. Amazon says this happens only with a small percentage of recordings to “improve the customer experience.” Riiight.

If you want to take control of your privacy and keep your conversations out of marketing databases, there are ways to keep your smart devices from listening. However, in another move billed as a “new way to stay connected,” Amazon launched its Sidewalk service, which keeps your Echo, Ring and other Amazon devices online, even if your internet service provider goes out. Devices are automatically enrolled in the program unless you opt out.

With Sidewalk, Amazon smart-home gear interconnects to create a series of mini mesh networks, meaning your devices can relay information to other components further away from your router and even stay online when your Wi-Fi goes down. To do this, Amazon uses Bluetooth and unused slices of the wireless spectrum, with Ring cameras and Echo speakers acting as the main bridges to keep everything connected.

The controversial part of Amazon Sidewalk is the way it shares some of your internet bandwidth with your neighbors, creating a wider network of devices that can operate independently. If your internet goes down, your Ring camera can connect to the internet next door to keep sending you alerts, assuming both of you are set up with Sidewalk. On the flip side, if your neighbor’s internet goes down, their smart devices can temporarily connect to your router and the Sidewalk network you’ve created.

Data privacy may not directly impact your operation, but it’s definitely a national and local issue. In February, Virginia became the second state to enact major privacy legislation. Fortunately, it includes the ALTA-supported exemption for data governed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Other states are considering their own data privacy bills, and Congress is doing the same at the national level.

ALTA has developed suggested state legislative language for data privacy and will continue to monitor developments. In the meantime, let me know if you find a good deal on a stuffed unicorn.

Jeremy Yohe is ALTA’s vice president of communications. He can be reached at jyohe@alta.org.

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