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Americans added a few hundred million smart devices to their homes in 2020. And they’re learning a lot about us.

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An assortment of recently launched Amazon devices, including an Echo Input, Echo Show, Echo Plus, Echo Sub, Echo Auto and Fire TV Recast are pictured at the company headquarters in Seattle in September. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

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Back in 2014, when the Echo and its virtual assistant Alexa made their debut, it was called a “Star Trek computer for the home.” Over this past year, our homes have become our own personal Starship Enterprises, as more of us have turned to smart devices like the Echo. In the U.S., manufacturers shipped over 375 million smart home devices in 2020, up 8.8% from the year before.

“We saw that the smart home essentially achieved mainstream status,” said Adam Wright, a senior research analyst at the market firm IDC. 

Wright himself has 10 smart speakers throughout his home. He said the ability to use his voice to control them is really convenient, especially when wrangling two small children.

“We come down for breakfast in the morning, and the first thing I ask is for it to play the Wiggles,” said Wright. “That’s always a hit from Australia.”

Wright lives in Massachusetts now, north of Boston, but is originally from Queensland, Australia. He also uses smart devices to stay in touch with family there. 

The more we ask our smart speakers to do things like play music, turn out the lights, and connect us with family, the more they learn about us.

“Whether it’s our personal grooming routines, travel routines, they are getting very attuned to what we’re doing on a daily basis,” said Ifeoma Ajunwa, who studies artificial intelligence and workplace surveillance as a law professor at the University of North Carolina. 

Ajunwa says we’re trusting companies not to provide that data to outside parties, such as banks or our employers, and to use it responsibly themselves.

“With a company like Amazon, they already have a vested interest in selling you more things,” said Ajunwa. “So with the Echo, they are collecting information that could be used to sell you more things, essentially.”

Amazon said it doesn’t use interactions with the Echo to inform product recommendations, or sell customer data to third parties.  The company does record interactions when users speak to Alexa. Customers can manage those recordings, and have the option to delete them.

But there are no federal laws around what companies can do with user data.

“Right now, the only governing principles around what data may be collected are really the terms of service,” said Arjunwa.

Those can be long and complicated for users to wade through. Also vague, if you ask Joseph Turow, the author of the book “The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen In to Exploit Your Feelings, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet.” 

“They can use any kind of interaction they have with you on any level to make any kind of inferences, which is quite astonishing,” Turow said.

Turow’s research finds many people are resigned to trusting in companies like Amazon, if they want the ability to use products like the Echo.

“This notion that there’s a trade off going on is much too simplistic,” said Turow. “People really don’t feel they have a choice in many cases.”

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