Finding the Balance Between Required Information for Smart Devices to Facilitate Daily Life and Privacy Concerns

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

The other day I was very enthusiastically setting up my new iKettle. As it usually goes with smart devices these days, the setup tends to be short and sweet, asking you for just a handful of personal data, if any. As I was typing in my email address and morning routine, the preferred temperature of my evening and morning beverage, I couldn’t help but question my own choice of purchasing a smart kettle instead of a “dumb” one.

Objectively speaking, a smart kettle will facilitate daily life. No question about that. You get out of bed in the morning, and as you’re in the shower listening for the umpteenth time to Sonny and Cher’s “I got you, babe!”, your water is automagically being heated to the ideal 82 celsius degrees for that Earl Grey you like sipping while on the underground to work. You know what the temperature is outside, the latest news and notifications have all been provided to you through the Magic Mirror while brushing your teeth, and forgetting to turn the security alarm on is no biggie, your smart lights will notify you there’s no movement in the house and all you do is tap a button in an app, and your alarm is armed. In a similar fashion throughout the day, various bits of technology ranging from your phone to your watch will facilitate your life and interact with you in a genuinely useful way.

But all magic comes at a price, and it’s no matter of joke. Every time we sign up to use a new smart device, chances are it’s another brand, and we’re asked to give the same or contextually different information we did last time, creating a larger and larger digital footprint, so large in fact that one would find it extremely difficult to keep track of it all. While smart devices are getting cheaper and cheaper, less of a novelty and more of a commodity, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify — at least financially — the reasoning behind getting a “dumb” kettle when the smart one is only 40% more expensive. Prices will keep dropping, and smart “everything” will become the norm, hence it’s important to understand that there is a balance between the information one gives away about one’s self, and one’s privacy.

Don’t spread information about yourself nilly-willy.

Brand loyalty has never been so important as it will be very soon, and not only to the brands themselves but to you as well. If at all possible stick to the same brand as often as you can. This will ensure not only easy setup and better smart products in the long run, but also limiting the information you provide about yourself to a few data-servers only, rather than twenty different ones for the twenty smart devices you own. Smart device setups tend to ask more or less for the same data. You’re much better off giving it all to one or two major brands, than twenty.

Don’t be cheap. It never looks good.

And it never ends well either. While prices are steadily dropping, you still want to be careful with things that are suspiciously under-priced. Chances are security in those devices is next to none, and their data or cloud servers are poorly maintained or even shoddy foreign government funded with alternative motives. Remember that cyber warfare isn’t a figment of one’s imagination any more and you don’t want to get caught in the middle. Go with reputable brands, regardless of the price.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Do your research.

Privacy laws are not the same in all parts of the World. European and US laws for instance are very different and sometimes contradictory. If you have an issue with government agencies having access to your data, focus more on devices that store data either locally only or on European soil. It also doesn’t hurt looking up their stance on encryption and data anonymization. These are both practices that will widen your options of data you can safely provide.

It’s an input field, not a gun to the head.

The tendency is for people to fill in all information they are being asked for. There is almost a sense of need for looking good in any profile, filling every field out as if someone will ever read through my iKettle profile. Signing up with a smart device is not signing up with a dating site. The less information you provide, the better. As long as the next button becomes active, it’s grand. There’s an option to skip? Try it! If you feel the device’s intelligence is hindered by lack of information, you can add things later. Companies make sure that you can, it’s in their best interest to do so. No need to give them every detail about yourself. Your sixth toe and your thirteen cats’ names should definitely stay out of it.

Last but not least: children.

Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. If at all possible, keep all your children related information inaccessible to smart devices, and share as little of it as possible through any means involving the internet. It is hard to justify almost any smart device in the hands of a child, and never forget that children in general don’t yet have a sense of privacy and comprehend the dangers of sharing data with certain devices and applications.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that it often comes down to common sense, but as the saying goes, common sense is not so common”, and today’s “smart world” can play tricks even on the most vigilant ones of us. The golden rule is share as little and as rarely as possible and add supplemental information on a need to basis. If you’re not planning to control your Hue lights while you’re at work, or on vacation, there’s no need to register with the cloud service itself. Same goes for everything else. Be stingy with your data. Once it’s out there, it can grow legs, and your digital footprint next to impossible to erase. Don’t be paranoid, just careful.

Attila Vagowriter of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Programming polyglot, pragmatic doer, member of the “taking care of business” crowd, with a no nonsense attitude. An easily inspired inspirational individual with a strong predilection towards most things nerdy, good, carnivorous food, and Lego. Uses a Mac. Runs at 6 a.m.

HackerNoon and Quora author.

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