Your house has been Googled – but don’t call the police

Parents might be wary of smart toys due to privacy and data security concerns, but Australian homes with young children have an average of 7.8 internet-connected devices tracking family activities.

Deakin University researchers have published the first detailed Australian survey of the uptake of ‘smart’ technologies in households with young children. The results show the normalisation of connected technologies in family life. 

Lead author Dr Luci Pangrazio, an expert in datafication and young people’s digital worlds, told Cosmos there is often a lot of hype and anxiety around things like smart toys. 

“We’re a bit more suspicious of things like home assistants and smart toys, because of what they’re collecting – it seems more personal and intimate,” she says. 

The survey of 504 households shows only fifteen households (3%) had any kind of smart toy.  Yet the majority had many seemingly mundane ‘smart’ devices like TVs, security systems and robot vacuum cleaners, technologies which are also collecting data and tracking household activities. 

“Information can be extrapolated from them quite easily about who is in the house, what is in the house, the comings and goings when you’re leaving for work. And so, the patterns of life, can be mapped, collected and then analysed,” Pangrazio says.

The paper, published in Media International Australia, details the findings of the survey of Australian households with children aged eight years and younger, representing 2016 individuals and some 5900 internet-connected devices and objects.

Electronic devices were common. Nearly all homes (99%) had at least one smartphone. While more than half had at least one laptop (88%), tablet (85%), smart TV (76%), gaming console (67%) or TV casting device (51%).

The majority (67%) also had at least one ‘internet-of-things’ device, such as smart appliances (fridges, vacuum cleaners), security systems, home assistants, medical or childcare related technologies.

Pangrazio says one of the more surprising findings, was the relatively high uptake of home security systems (35% of households). Systems included those with cameras monitoring the outside of the house, and sometimes indoors, as well as smart doorbells.

“Those technologies are making their way into homes a lot faster because they’re around security and risk and people are less worried about signing up to those kinds of things,” she says.

Many families won’t have time to read the terms and conditions, to understand what type of data those systems are collecting, and how they’re sharing it, Pangrazio says.

She says the survey results also illustrate the way “Google is getting a real foothold in the family home”, with the company collecting data across many different contexts.

A quarter of the households surveyed had home assistants (like a Google Home or Amazon Alexa). The majority were Google (66%), Amazon (22%) or Apple (11%).

“YouTube was probably one of the most common things for parents to have on in the background to entertain their kids,” Pangrazio says. Households with a Google Home or Nest often use these as ‘master controller’ to manage other connected devices within the home, and may also monitor children’s online activities using Google’s Family Link. These elements combine with the growing use of Google Workplace in schools and workplaces.

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Children’s lives are increasingly datafied – often without their informed consent – as personalised data about their health, education and home life is collected by governments, corporations and third-party data brokers.

The paper says an estimated 72 million data points will be collected about a child by the time they reach 13 years old.

Children’s data can threaten their privacy and digital rights, be amassed to profile, track and shape their online experiences, and the potential to influence future prospects, the paper says.

While other studies have looked at educational technologies, the Deakin University survey offers a snapshot of normalisation of connected technologies collecting data within the home environment.

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