Aging in Place with Google and Amazon: Privacy and Surveillance Implications for Older Adults

Submitted by: Jessica Percy Campbell, a former IALH Student Affiliate who recently completed her PhD in Political Science. For her dissertation, she explored the growing relationship between older adults and smart home technology. As a surveillance scholar, she is interested in the types of data that technology companies collect, how such data are used, and what users understand about these processes.

Smart home devices such as smart speakers (e.g., Alexa-enabled devices) are gaining in popularity. At the same time, big tech companies are scrutinized by academic researchers and the media for ongoing ethical issues related to privacy, autonomy, and security. My research explored the ways older adults use smart speakers for aging in place. I asked: How are smart speakers marketed to older adults, how are they used, and what are the subsequent privacy and surveillance implications?

First, an analysis of marketing materials showed that smart speakers are marketed towards older adults in unique ways. The collective claim by marketers and third-party affiliates is that smart speakers can be used for independent aging at home, allowing older adults to avoid or delay the need for residential care. They are also promoted as tools to give caregivers peace of mind in knowing older relatives are well taken care of in their smart homes.

Next, a focus group with older Amazon Alexa users indicated they loved Alexa for controlling appliances (smart lights, locks, etc.), conversations to alleviate loneliness (asking Alexa for jokes, games, or compliments), setting reminders and so on. However, when asked whether anyone had read the Terms of Use or had located their privacy settings, the answer was generally “no”. As the result of having family members configure their smart home systems, most participants were generally unaware that: (1) their interactions with Alexa were recorded by default; (2) such recordings could be accessed, reviewed and deleted in the Settings; and (3) Alexa interactions are used for consumer profiling and targeted ads online. These results align with other recent studies where smart speaker users of all ages are unaware of what data are collected or how they are used. Consent (for data use, collection, or disclosure), one of the 10 internationally recognized privacy principles that Canadian privacy law relies on, must be meaningful in order to be considered valid.

Finally, smart home surveillance leads to related issues, including potentially discriminatory outcomes of consumer profiling, a known issue with targeted marketing. The types of targeted advertisements that older adults receive requires further research. Moreover, as artificial intelligence (AI) systems further infiltrate daily life, the extent to which prompts, nudges, or advertisements interfere with autonomy is an ongoing question, one that extends into the realm of smart homes.

Overall, alongside calling for the further inclusion of older adults in all phases of smart home design processes, my argument is that Linnet Taylor’s conception of data justice should be applied to regulation in ways that benefit older adults. Technology should be leveraged to benefit users where it suits them while allowing for high levels of agency over how their data are used. Viable non-technological solutions to care should also be readily accessible. Lastly, data justice allows for challenging algorithmic or AI bias, which is likely to be a pressing issue in coming years.

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