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Smart devices spy for companies like Meta and TikTok, rights group warns

From television sets to internet-connected washing machines, smart home devices harvest significantly more user data than necessary.

All major brands across smart speakers, washing machines, TVs, video doorbells, and security cameras collect more information about users than needed for their products to function, according to a UK-based consumer rights group.

Which? said that some of this data is then shared with social media and marketing companies.

Many users agree to this inadvertently, with a third of people surveyed by the rights group admitting they don’t read the company’s privacy policy and two thirds saying they only skim through the text.

While data protection rules in the UK, where the research was done, require companies to be transparent about the data they collect and how they process it, many do so in “small print,” according to Which?

The terms and conditions of Google Nest products alone consist of more than 20,000 words, while it would take 13 and a half hours to read the documentation of all 23 brands covered in the research.

“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,” Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said.

“Firms should not collect more data than they need to provide the service that’s on offer, particularly if they are going to bury this important information in lengthy terms and conditions.”

Concha called on the UK authorities to crack down on data collection that went beyond “legitimate interests” and make the rules clearer.

Android users asked to share more

The study showed that users of Google’s Android apps were asked to share more information than Apple’s iOS users.

While all brands required users to share their exact location data regardless of their operating system, it was mostly Android users who had to share their location even when they weren’t using the product.

Opting out from default settings could in some cases mean aspects of a device or the app to control it stopped working, according to Which?

While Apple sells hardware, Google’s primary business is marketing and advertising, potentially explaining different data collection practices applied by brands to different operating systems, the group said.

This was true for Google’s own Nest smart products and other brands as well. In a statement, Google said it “fully complies with applicable privacy laws and provides transparency to our users regarding the data we collect and how we use it.”

Unsurprisingly, Echo, Blink, and Ring products also connected to their parent company Amazon, which also said it was “transparent” about the information it collected and needed to develop better products for its customers.

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

Ezviz, a Chinese video camera and doorbell brand, was among the top offenders when it came to data sharing, allowing tracking from two other Chinese companies, Huawei and TikTok, in addition to Google and Meta.

What is data used for?

Information collected by the smart camera about the location of someone’s house, the size of it, and the type of car parked in front of it can tell advertisers a lot about how affluent they are.

The kind of questions users address to smart speakers could hint at what products they might want to buy.

Meanwhile, TV brands may track what users watch to serve personalized ads. Most TV tracking is optional and users have to agree to it before the brand will do anything, Which? said, but noted that LG, Samsung, and Sony bundled this up into an “accept all” button.

Smart washing machines can also be used to track consumers. Knowing how frequently users do laundry and at what temperatures is valuable data to detergent companies and energy suppliers.

In terms of collecting excessive data, LG and Hoover will not allow using their washing machine apps without knowing users’ birth dates, while it is optional for Beko.

LG is also the most data-hungry of washing machine brands: in addition to birth date, it requires customers to divulge their name, email, phone contact book, precise location, and phone number.

Hoover will only demand extra information from Android users, while Miele enables precise location tracking by default, and this is required to use the app.

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