More Builders Are Selling Homes Wired For Tech But Data Privacy Is At Stake Smart homes let homeowners turn on lights and unlock doors from a mobile phone. But the technology also sends incredible amounts of data to big tech companies.

A Smart Home Neighborhood: Residents Find It Enjoyably Convenient Or A Bit Creepy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/777747209/778158883" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's a new kind of community about an hour south of Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, Wash. What makes it a new kind of community is all the Amazon gear. The neighborhood in the town of Black Diamond is stuffed with so much technology you could call it a smart home laboratory. Its residents are learning what it's like to live in what may be the home of the future. They're finding smart homes offer convenience but also feed tech companies incredibly detailed information about their lives. KUOW's Joshua McNichols takes us there.

JOSHUA MCNICHOLS, BYLINE: Is one of these the Amazon house?

BRITTNEY SVACH: Yeah. So the one that has the sign in front of it that says Amazon Experience Center - that's the one that we're going to tour.

MCNICHOLS: Brittney Svach works for Lennar, one of the nation's largest home builders, and she's been making the same sales pitch over and over to potential homebuyers in this Seattle suburb - control everything from your window blinds to your door locks using just your voice.

ALEXA: The front door is locked.

MCNICHOLS: Adjust the mood lighting or tell Roomba to clean up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOMBA RUNNING)

MCNICHOLS: Call up the feed from one of the countless video cameras on the smart television.

SVACH: Alexa, show me the backyard.

ALEXA: OK.

SVACH: And now we can spy on whoever is having a drink on the back patio (laughter).

MCNICHOLS: Cameras and convenience - that's the pitch. Drew Holmes (ph) wasn't looking for a smart home when he shopped for a house here. But the technologies came with the house.

DREW HOLMES: Now I, like, would not live without them.

MCNICHOLS: His favorite feature is a Ring Doorbell that logs visitors.

HOLMES: I have a teenager. It's nice to confirm when they come home and I can - I have proof of it.

MCNICHOLS: One time, Holmes was away on a business trip, and his stepdaughter forgot her key and couldn't get in.

HOLMES: So she just texted me, hey, can you open the door? And I opened the door from Oregon, and so that was nice - problem solved.

MCNICHOLS: There are other neighborhoods like this bubbling up outside tech-savvy cities like Miami and Denver. And I should mention Amazon is an NPR sponsor. In this neighborhood, Alexa's in every room. She adjusts the thermostat and reports on people's commutes when they roll out of bed. And she's getting better at it because she's watching and learning what people need. But that data collection worries Therron Smith (ph), and he went out of his way to buy a home here that does not include smart home technology. He didn't want the cloud to know every time his kids flip a light switch.

THERRON SMITH: That data's not just sitting there just empty. Like, somebody's going to look at it and leverage it to try to turn a profit or try to create an ad or try to create some revenue.

MCNICHOLS: That might be one reason smart homes aren't more popular already. A Zillow survey found people are just far more interested in air conditioning and ample storage than smart home technology. On the other hand, Dave Garland thinks the technology will take off once people try it. He's with Second Century Ventures, an investment arm of the National Association of Realtors.

DAVE GARLAND: There is a new narrative when it comes to what home means.

MCNICHOLS: It means a personalized environment where technology responds to your every need. Maybe it means giving up some privacy. These families are trying out that compromise. Fifteen-year-old Macey Ferguson (ph) says she likes it. She uses Alexa alarms - one for cheerleading practice and one for homework - to help her manage her busy life.

MACEY FERGUSON: I just feel really fancy because I feel like she's my little, like, servant or butler - I don't (laughter) - butler.

MCNICHOLS: But her mom, Kelli (ph), is more cautious.

KELLI FERGUSON: If I'm walking on our street, I walk on the other side of the street...

MCNICHOLS: The side without the smart homes...

FERGUSON: Just because I don't feel like being on everyone's cameras.

MCNICHOLS: And that's something we'll all have to learn how to navigate if this technology becomes standard in more neighborhoods.

For NPR News, I'm Joshua McNichols in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE THE ROBOTS' "TURKISH VOODOO")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.