Content starts here

Can You Hear Me Now?


Internet-connected devices are rapidly becoming commonplace in our daily lives. Smartphones, tablets, televisions, thermostats, cars, video games and even children’s toys now connect to the Internet.

Many connected devices contain embedded microphones and cameras that can collect, send and share audio and video data. This creates concerns about the types of information these devices might be collecting and sharing.

What’s more, many of them are “always on” — listening and watching day and night, allowing devices to respond to voice commands heard by the microphone or images captured by the camera.

This enables consumers to interact more easily with devices, as well as offer other functionality. For example, an “always on” video camera can detect unusual sounds or activities that might indicate a home burglary is in progress.

But what are the privacy costs to consumers of having devices always listening and watching?

For most consumers, it’s hard to know. Key issues include when the device collects data, what data it collects, what data it stores and/or shares, and if it’s possible to turn off the “always on” feature. Further, consumers need to know all the potential uses of the data so they can understand the privacy implications of using a device.

Perhaps the biggest concern is that many consumers don’t know their devices could be recording their activities even when they are not using them. One privacy group notes that people do not expect to have what they say and do recorded if they are not actively using the device. As such, consumers need to understand the specifics of the data collection and usage policies associated with their device.

However, when consumers do look for details about the privacy consequences of using these devices, there is often a lack of clear disclosure about data gathering and use. In some cases, companies had to clarify details surrounding data collection and use for “always on” devices after consumers raised privacy concerns.

Another issue is that any stored audio and/or video data held in databases creates the prospect of a data breach. Such breaches could potentially allow hackers access to private conversations and activities taking place in the homes of consumers using these devices.

With “always on” devices becoming increasingly widespread, the privacy issues surrounding these devices can trigger concerns for consumers thinking of using this technology. To make informed decisions, consumers need greater transparency around data collection and use from “always on” devices. In addition, consumers should have the ability to limit the collection and storage of audio and video data to help prevent loss of privacy due to data breaches.

Photo: iStock


Neal Walters is a policy r esearch senior analyst for the Financial Security Team who publishes on topics including information privacy and security, technology, identity theft, affordable home utilities, prepaid cards and credit reporting.

Search AARP Blogs