Which? warns smart home devices are demanding needless amounts of user data – even washing machines and TVs | Science & Tech News

Smart home devices, including appliances like washing machines, demand unnecessarily large amounts of user data that could end up in the hands of social media and marketing firms, a consumer group has warned.

Which? said many products’ apps request information during setup that should not be needed to run.

Among the offenders are Google thermostats that ask some users for their location and contacts, LG washing machines that need to know your date of birth, and Sony TVs that want to track your viewing habits.

In some cases, Which? said such data is shared with the likes of Facebook and Instagram owner Meta and TikTok.

UK data protection rules mean companies must be transparent about the data they collect and how it is processed.

But most customers are likely unaware of the extent to which it may be shared, as a third of people surveyed by Which? admitted they don’t read a device’s privacy policy and most only skim it.

In the case of a Google Nest device, the documentation is more than 20,000 words.

Rocio Concha, the consumer group’s director of policy and advocacy, said the Information Commissioner’s Office (Britain’s data watchdog) should consider updating its guidelines to better protect people.

“Firms should not collect more data than they need to provide the service that’s on offer,” she said.

“Particularly if they are going to bury this important information in lengthy terms and conditions.”

Close-up of weatherproof outdoor Nest home surveillance camera from Google Inc installed in a smart home in San Ramon, California, August 21, 2018. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Google Nest encompasses doorbells, cameras, and thermostats

Who are the worst offenders?

The research looked at what information users needed to provide during setup, what data permissions a device’s relevant app requested, and what activity was subsequently tracked.

Smart cameras and doorbells from Ezviz, sold by many major UK retailers, were found to be particularly hungry and shared data with Google; Meta; Chinese phone maker Huawei; and TikTok’s own business marketing unit called Pangle.

Sky News has contacted Ezviz for comment.

Google Nest products varied depending on whether users managed them from an Android or Apple phone.

The former, which is Google’s mobile operating system, collects additional data like contacts and location.

In a statement, the search giant said it “fully complies with applicable privacy laws and provides transparency to our users regarding the data we collect and how we use it”.

The speaker pulled up a result from the web that suggested a dangerous challenge that circulated on TikTok last year. File pic
Speakers like Alexa have privacy features like deleting voice recordings – and Which? suggests turning them on

Unsurprisingly, fellow smart home brands Blink and Ring use tracking services from parent firm Amazon.

On Android, Ring even wants permission for people’s background location, which is not needed to alert them when their home security system is triggered and means they could be tracked when not using the app.

Consumers can opt out, but it’s turned on by default.

Amazon said its Blink, Ring, and Echo products were designed to “protect our customers’ privacy and security”.

“We never sell their personal data, and we never stop working to keep their information safe,” it said.

Tips to improve your data privacy

  • Opt out – some data collection is optional during setup, so don’t accept everything by default if you’re uncomfortable
  • Check permissions – on iOS and Android, you can review permission requests before downloading an app, and check what each app has access to in your settings
  • Deny access – also in your phone settings, you can potentially deny or limit each app’s access to personal data
  • Delete recordings – Amazon and Google’s smart assistants let you set your voice recordings to be deleted automatically after a period of time
  • Privacy policy – do at least browse the policy, particularly the data collection sections

What could a washing machine need to know?

The hunger for data now extends to traditional home appliances like washing machines and TVs, which have been becoming increasingly internet-enabled.

With the latter, panels from LG, Samsung and Sony all flood their menus with ads and want access to user data to personalise which ones they see.

Tracking is optional, but Which? found all three firms bundled up the settings into a single “accept all” button rather than encouraging customers to better understand what was happening.

Samsung said security and privacy was “top-of-mind” and said its users can view, download, and delete any data stored across its products and apps.

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With smart washing machines, those from LG do not allow the use of their app without users giving their name, email, phone contacts, precise location, phone number, and date of birth.

LG told Sky News the app requested such details “to help tailor the experience, learn habits and anticipate needs, enabling customers to manage their smart appliance on the go”.

“All LG products can be used manually without the need to share personal details,” it said.

Miele’s app also track a user’s location by default, while Hoover’s Android demands access to contacts.

The company said data is collected “to optimise appliance usage and offer customers additional features”. It added it is “transparent with its customers”.

Ms Concha from Which? said: “Consumers have already paid for smart products, in some cases thousands of pounds, so it is excessive that they have to continue to ‘pay’ with their personal information.”

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