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Smart devices - what are the risks for consumers?

Summary

  • Smart devices have become mainstream with 19.2 million devices bought in the UK in 2021 

  • The benefits of these devices are obvious to consumers, but they are much less aware of the risks 

  • Evidence shows that many consumers do not act in ways to protect themselves against the risks associated with smart devices

Smart device ownership is common

Sales of smart devices more than doubled in 2021 with 19.2 million devices bought by UK consumers – compared to 9.3 million in 2020 . According to Which? research smart TVs (owned by 61% of people), tablets (60%) and smart assistants (38%) are some of the most common.

The benefits are clear

Members of our Which? Consumer Insight Panel value the convenience and control smart devices offer, for example the ability to have all you need on one device.

 

Whilst consumers value the features offered within smart devices, many households within our panel use their devices in a relatively limited way. While most smart devices have complex functionality many panellists don’t take full advantage of these, for instance a few panellists who own a virtual assistant e.g. Alexa, use this primarily to ask questions or play music.

Only a few panellists were more enthusiastic users of the full functionality of these products, for example creating a ‘smart home’ using a range of smart devices.

But most people are not aware of the risks

Within our Which? Panel smart device users tended to be more aware of the benefits of using the devices than of  the risks. There were a couple of exceptions to this, for instance a concern felt by a small number of the sample was the risk to children, in particular their safety on gaming devices. Additionally there were some concerns regarding home assistants, e.g. Alexa and Google Home, listening in to conversations. Whilst this is a concern for some, many downplay this worry accepting data needs to be collected in order to perform fundamental features of the device (i.e. improving shopping suggestions), with some suggesting it’s AI listening in not humans and therefore didn’t pose a true threat to their privacy.

There were a couple of factors which appeared to play a role in this low level of perceived risk:

1. The product brand e.g. Amazon, Google and Apple; and

2. The type of device. 

Firstly,  brand trust plays a part for some. If the device is made by a trusted brand ) there is an assumption that the device must be secure.  

Other consumers focus more on the type of device rather than the brand. For this group, concern about the security of smart devices was lower than computers and phones as they felt that they shared less personal information with these devices. This could be a false sense of security if smart devices are a way of accessing home networks and other data.

Consumer behaviours regarding smart devices are risky

With consumers generally unconcerned about the risks of smart devices, there is little evidence that consumers are protecting themselves from potential security issues, including keeping devices updated. Respondents gave little thought to updates for smart devices, and had low awareness of what updates do and when they happen. Understanding of the risks of not updating frequently was very limited.

Similarly, there are also questions around whether consumers are keeping devices which are potentially no longer receiving updates. There is a general expectation that smart devices should last at least as long as non-smart equivalents, with low levels of understanding of potential software obsolescence. Whilst for some households this may not become a risk if they replace their devices regularly, many do keep and use devices for longer than software support periods, potentially putting them at risk.

Contact us

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please email Paige Johns at consumerinsight@which.co.uk

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