One year ago we asked some of the most well-known smart home device manufacturers if they provided customer data to governments. The results were mixed.
The three major smart home device manufacturers – Amazon, Facebook, and Google (which includes Nest) – have all reported in their transparency reports whether and when governments request customer information. Apple said it did not need a report because the data collected was anonymous.
Incidentally, no one had published his information on government demand.
The smart home market has grown rapidly over the past year, but the remaining device manufacturers have made little or no progress in disclosing their numbers. And in some cases it got worse.
Smart Home and other Internet-connected devices are convenient and accessible, but they capture a wealth of information about you and your home. Smart locks know when someone enters your house, and smart doorbells can capture their face. Smart TVs know what programs you see, and some smart speakers know what you're interested in. Many smart devices collect data when not in use – and some capture data points that you may not even think about, such as: For example – and send them back to the manufacturers, supposedly to make the devices – and your home – smarter.
Data is stored in the cloud by device manufacturers, and law enforcement agencies and government agencies can demand that these companies hand over their data to investigate crime.
However, as data collection volumes increase, companies are not transparent about the data requirements they receive. All we have is individual reports – and there are many: The police have retrieved Amazon Echo data to investigate a murder. Fitbit provided data that charged a man with murder. Samsung helped catch a sex predator that was watching pictures of child abuse. Nest gave up surveillance material to help members of the prison gang; and the recent coverage of Ring owned by Amazon shows strong links between the smart home device maker and law enforcement.
We found the following.
Manufacturers of Smart Locks and Doorbells August gave exactly the same statement as last year that "there is currently no Transparency Report and we have never received national security letters or orders for user content or information according to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). However, August spokeswoman Stephanie Ng did not comment on the number of overseas security inquiries received – subpoenas, arrest warrants and court orders – but only on their compliance with "All Laws" when it receives a legal challenge.
Roomba Manufacturer iRobot stated, as last year, that it did not receive any government data requirements. "IRobot is currently not planning to release a Transparency Report," but may consider publishing a report "if iRobot receives an official request for customer data."
Arlo a former division Netgear Smart Home, which was spun off in 2018, did not respond to a request for comments. Netgear, which still has some smart home technologies, said "not publishing a transparency report publicly."
Amazonian Ring whose collaboration with law enforcement agencies has troubled lawmakers and raised questions about its ability to protect users' privacy, planned to publish a transparency report for the future last year. but did not say when. This time ring announcer Yassi Shahmiri did not want to comment and did not respond to repeated follow-up emails.
Honeywell spokeswoman Megan McGovern refused to comment and referred questions to Resideo, the Honeywell outsourced smart home division a year ago. Bruce Anderson of Resideo did not comment on that.
Also Samsung manufacturer of smart devices, televisions with internet connection and other devices, responded as in the past year not to a request for comment.
Business responses were broadly the same as last year.
But the manufacturer of intelligent switches and sensors Ecobee who promised to publish a transparency report "at the end of 2018" last year, did not live up to its promise. When we asked for the reason, Ecobee spokesman Kristen Johnson did not respond to repeated requests for comments.
Based on the best data available, August, iRobot, Ring and the rest of smart home device manufacturers have hundreds of millions of users and customers around the world, with the potential to provide governments with enormous amounts of data and users are not smarter.
Transparency reports may not be perfect and some are less transparent than others. But when large companies – even after bloody headlines and claims of cooperation with surveillance states – reveal their numbers, there is little excuse for the smaller companies.
This time, some companies performed better than their competitors. But for those who care about their privacy, you can and should expect better results.