“I would have to evaluate their objections”: Privacy tensions between smart home device owners and incidental users

Authors: Camille Cobb (Carnegie Mellon University), Sruti Bhagavatula (Carnegie Mellon University), Kalil Anderson Garrett (Carnegie Mellon University), Alison Hoffman (Carnegie Mellon University), Varun Rao (Carnegie Mellon University), Lujo Bauer (Carnegie Mellon University)

Volume: 2021
Issue: 4
Pages: 54–75
DOI: https://doi.org/10.2478/popets-2021-0060

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Abstract: Recent research and articles in popular press have raised concerns about the privacy risks that smart home devices can create for incidental users—people who encounter smart home devices that are owned, controlled, and configured by someone else. In this work, we present the results of a user-centered investigation that explores incidental users’ experiences and the tensions that arise between device owners and incidental users. We conducted five focus group sessions through which we identified specific contexts in which someone might encounter other people’s smart home devices and the main concerns device owners and incidental users have in such situations. We used these findings to inform the design of a survey instrument, which we deployed to a demographically representative sample of 386 adults in the United States. Through this survey, we can better understand which contexts and concerns are most bothersome and how often device owners are willing to accommodate incidental users’ privacy preferences. We found some surprising trends in terms of what people are most worried about and what actions they are willing to take. For example, while participants who did not own devices themselves were often uncomfortable imagining them in their own homes, they were not as concerned about being affected by such devices in homes that they entered as part of their jobs. Participants showed interest in privacy solutions that might have a technical implementation component, but also frequently envisioned an open dialogue between incidental users and device owners to negotiate privacy accommodations.

Keywords: smart homes, internet of things, incidental users, privacy

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