The Smart Home: Choosing between Privacy and Progress

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The Smart Home: Choosing between Privacy and Progress

“Good morning Eric. It is 6:30 a.m. and today is November 18th. The weather forecast expects rain and cloud cover throughout the day. You have a meeting scheduled at 8:30 a.m. Coffee will be ready in five minutes.”

I look up and jadedly acknowledge the glowing blue orb mounted on my bedroom wall. My mornings have gotten a lot easier since I installed the Optimal Fast Tracking Utility. The OFTU is smart.

After only a couple of weeks my mornings are now automated. My home is now a smart home — I no longer worry about the little things. The shower turns on two minutes before I step in, the perfect temperature. As I walk down the stairs, lights turn on in procession. But today, my coffee seems to be a few shades darker than I am used to. That’s odd. I can’t remember changing the settings on the coffee machine.

“Is there a problem with your coffee Eric? Settings have been changed to one cream.” The OFTU’s audio echoes through the house and I recall a conversation I had the previous day with a colleague about using less cream in my coffee. I stare at the globe mounted above the stove as it shifts colors from a pale blue to dark violet and realize the OFTU must have overheard my remark from my cell phone.

Over the past few decades, the Internet has transformed nearly every social activity. It is difficult to think of an area that has been completely immune to the Internet’s influence. It is a constant presence in daily life: we shop, talk, and learn online; we stream music; we pay our bills electronically. Connected through cyber communities, we open ourselves up to new worlds of opportunity and gain access to more information than we could ever use.

However, gaining access to this vast store of knowledge comes at a price. Willingly or not, sharing personal information has become a requisite to participate in 21st century society. Anonymity has become a thing of the past.

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”Mark Zuckerberg, 2010

Privacy is out and big data is the new big thing. No surprise then, that data is everywhere. Information is perpetually pouring from electronic devices.

Through sophisticated algorithms, companies use data to understand our behavior — to learn what makes us tick and what gets us to open up our wallets. Smart companies are using consumer information to create more effective marketing campaigns. It may sound — and actually be — harmless for the most part, but we should not disregard just how much large corporations actually know about us. When a company like Target knows about a Minneapolis teen’s pregnancy before her father does, big data starts to cross some controversial lines.

As soon as things enter the home or start affecting family life, we need serious public discussion about the ethics of corporate data collection and use. For exactly this reason, we should consider the implications behind Google’s $3.2 billion purchase of Nest in February 2014. An Internet of Things superstar, Nest calls itself a “home automation company,” producing smart thermostats and smoke detectors. Designed with an eerie resemblance to Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Nest thermostat sets the stage for the essential privacy debate that needs to precede the smart home of the future.

Comparing the Nest Thermostat and HAL 9000

Comparing the Nest Thermostat and HAL 9000. Credits to Mike Walton.

On the one hand, integration of smart technology and automation in the home is the next logical step towards improving safety, health, and quality of life. The fact that I still have to think twice about whether I left the stove on is mind-boggling considering that my cell phone has more computing power than NASA’s first manned mission to the moon. In the coming years, technological progress will stand to mean more than just a flatter TV or a more efficient appliance. The household of the future will become smarter and safer by taking the Nest approach: increased connectivity and use of the Internet.

As the smart home progresses along its journey to the land of bits and bytes, the disintegration of our privacy is inevitable. The home is one of the rare, remaining safe spaces of the modern age. Free from the arguable pollution of corporate advertising and domestic surveillance, the fact that homes are going to be more intelligent soon is a cause for concern. Startups that aim to improve people’s lives by collecting data from our daily activities are here to stay, and are bound to be joined by a litany of colleagues and competitors, all angling for our attention as they dive deeper into what makes us who we are — what we say, what we do, and what we desire.

This will also create a new market for personal information. Consider a recent patent application by a major US telecom that, using a built-in TV microphone, listens and analyzes conversations at home to deliver more ‘relevant’ commercials. Having a chat with you significant other about your sex life? Prepare for wave after wave of Viagra and marriage counseling ads.

With the Amazon Dash Button, a smarter future for our homes is not so far away

Given the current political landscape in the US, the smart home could transform movie night with the family into an Orwellian nightmare. Personal data aside, consider how the NSA might take advantage of the home’s Internet connectivity. With Nest’s recent purchase of Dropcam, a wireless video monitor, for $555 million, the government could easily have both an ear on conversations and an eye in the home.

Would the Patriot Act allow government agencies to take a peek through your newly purchased Dropcam, and how might that effect freedom of opinion and expression? Will the home remain a private — and safe — space?

For many, myself included, there is a still a doubt or two about big data. Before it becomes okay to install a Dropcam in the bedroom, politicians, tech workers, and regular citizens need to come together and engage in a discourse about the implications of data and data collection on privacy. As members of an advanced technological society, we need to use caution and foresight before proceeding. And ultimately, we need to set in motion the processes that will create the legal framework to protect privacy in the 21st century home.

“I’ve just picked up an error in the Tesla Battery Management System. 100% failure in 30 minutes.”

Strange.

After grabbing my diagnostic tools and stepping into the garage, an uneasy feeling tides over me as I glance back at the doorway. The orb is now a hot red. “I found your comments about the current administration troublesome, Eric.” I don’t need to ask, the OFTU recognizes the confused look on my face and plays a vocal recording from three days ago when I met my brother in the park. It’s my voice.

“The Republican party’s inability to do anything about climate change demands that we assemble…”

There is a soft click. Did someone just lock the door?

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