Understanding the Connected Home: Relationships

TL;DR: We wrote a book. It’s about connected homes (aka smart homes) and how we can design them in a way that makes them great to live in. It’s for practitioners. It’s available online via Gitbook (for free), and extra nicely Kindle-formatted on the Amazon Kindle store (this is also a way to support the publication). This here is one of several excerpts, with slightly adapted formatting for Medium.


We believe that a home, whether connected or not, should primarily serve the humans in it.

Products and services we make should augment and respect human relationships. And, as more computation enters the home, we must be aware of how some human interactions and scenarios may take on new norms and considerations.

Hospitality. How does hospitality change in a connected environment? Certainly there are timeless elements of etiquette. Nevertheless, there might be new ways we interact when we’re a guest in someone’s connected home.

Sharing connected objects. In a household, it’s common to share lots of objects. From appliances to furniture to toys and media and more, what are the design opportunities that await when we think about sharing connected objects?

Home & data. The connected home is a computer. What happens to its data when we move? What does it look like for residents to use and maintain data about their home? What role does connectivity play when buying and selling a home?

Who has control? As homes become more connected and software-based, questions around access and rights control become acute. Who controls your home’s infrastructure? What rights does the city have, or the neighbors, or different members of a household? How are those permission levels negotiated?

The connected things we surround ourselves with. What criteria do we use to decide what connected objects to invite into our homes? How do we evaluate when we want to own something or not?

The home as a target for commercial tracking and government surveillance. If a device has the ability to track and record you, it’s likely that it will, even when you don’t want it to. Advertisers, governments and criminals alike will use the Internet of Things to track our behavior to an even greater degree than today. We need to build safeguards against commercial and government surveillance and protections against abuse.


A good guest

If someone invites you to their connected home, there might be some things for you, as a guest, to consider.

  • Bring a gift. It’s a common practice to bring a gift for your host, such as bottle of wine, flowers or chocolates for your host. Of course, if you knew your host didn’t like one of those things, you would want to take that into account. In the connected home, would there be other kinds of acceptable gifts? With these gifts, how can you respect your hosts preferred level of connectivity, so that they are delighted and not annoyed or upset by your gift.
  • Communicate your connectivity preferences. If someone invites you to dinner, you might tell them in advance what your dietary preferences and needs are. Are you vegetarian? Are you allergic to fish or have a gluten intolerance? In the connected home, we may find that guests will also have to communicate their connectivity preferences. Are you ok with devices knowing your location or transmitting your movements to a third party service? Do you have an issue with your device connecting to the home system, and what data will it be allowed to share? Knowing these preferences in advance could help avoid awkward situations on arrival (“Sorry, I didn’t know you don’t like active vital sign tracking!”). Save your host, or your guests, the stress and address these things in advance.
  • Ask permission before modifying. A good house guest is considerate of the home they are in. They leave the space tidy and they don’t mess with any objects or equipment without permission from the host. The same will likely apply in the connected home. Ask permission before you change the smart thermostat, either actively by pushing a button on the object, or passively by having your preferred settings override the hosts.
  • Leave data dirt outside. In many homes, it’s common to take off your shoes when you arrive. This ensures that the dirt from the outside isn’t tracked throughout the house. There might be equivalents to this practice upon entering the connected home. Turn off your connected services that might bring unwanted data or sensors into the home. If you recently had a virus or security breach, take precautions and let your host know so that they can protect themselves or accept the risk.
  • Understand the house rules. Every home has its way of doing things. Objects that belong in certain places, rooms that aren’t intended for guests, times of day when things should be quiet. As a guest, ask your host about the house rules and respect them. As a host, think about subtle ways of communicating these rules, especially until more commonplace social norms have evolved.

All that said, as a guest, you certainly have some rights or courtesies afforded to you. For example, you should be able to ask the host what monitoring is going on in the home or to ask to have data logs deleted.

A good host

What does etiquette look like from the host’s perspective?

  • Communicate your connectivity preferences. Just like your guests, it’s good for you to communicate your preferences in advance and then again upon arrival as a reminder. This could mean asking for certain kinds of objects or sensors to be turned off or not brought into the home. (A few years ago we saw this interaction play out with Google Glass.) It could be the opposite, and a request for them to bring a certain kind of connectivity because you need it to prepare the meal or heat the home to their preferred temperature or some other function.
  • Prepare a guest information pack for guests who stay over. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to ask someone for the wifi password in their home. You can prepare an info pack in advance or leave one in a prominent location in your home so that your guests have all the access info they need. This could be guest passwords to your home network or server, instructions for changing the settings on certain objects, apps you need to download to interact with basic infrastructure, or other advice and logins for your connected home.
  • Allow guests to opt-out. That said, it’s always good form to allow your guests to have the option of opting out. Your role is to make them feel comfortable and welcome. If you have different preferences for going about connected spaces, give them a graceful way to not take part. Don’t presume consent: No means no, and consent should be given explicitly.
  • Anticipate needs. It’s an amazing feeling to have a host that provides something even before you realized you needed it. Carry that forward and think of what your guest might want or need during their visit and plan accordingly. This could be food, toiletries, and linens. But it might just as well mean providing enough power outlets for them to recharge their devices, lending them the adapters they might need (For many great examples see “How to Be the Perfect Host in the 21st Century” by Jason Fitzpatrick), or getting those permission levels for your fridge and blinds just right.
  • Brief your guests about the neighborhood. If your guests are visiting from another area, it’s a nice welcome gesture to let them know about your neighborhood. This includes things like transportation options and local sights, as well as what the connected environment is like. What are the rules and norms of the neighborhood regarding data collection, sensors, tracking and other issues? Should your guests be advised that most shops only accept payments with mobile NFC, or that the data retention laws have changed and that they may want to turn off certain services when they go for a walk? Do locals tend to be ok with their photos being taken? Being knowledgeable about your area and sharing that information will help your guests avoid unnecessary friction and have a more enjoyable stay.

Hospitality is the same, but different

Much of what made for a good guest/host relationship will likely remain unchanged: being respectful, politely communicating needs and preferences, being gracious and considerate.

Nevertheless, in the connected home that will likely manifest in slightly different ways. This will especially be the case for interactions that are not overt, but rather happening passively, for example among our devices and services.

Sharing connected objects

On the whole, you find wealth much more in use than in ownership. — Aristotle

Living together means sharing objects. The circumstances where we feel comfortable sharing depend on the relationship and personal preferences. Different rules apply among families, partnerships, roommates, etc.

Be it the TV remote, a book, the dining room table, or the dishes, the home is filled with objects that might be used by multiple people — sometimes simultaneously, sometimes asynchronously, sometimes even without the owner’s permission.

Through personalization and modularity, we can prepare for more shared usage. By switching accounts, the software layer can adapt the object to our preferences. Think of a connected object as an equivalent of a game console where you log in, and the systems has your customized digital spaces ready.

Trust management can help to better navigate who can use what object. Is there a way to provide transparency to who used the objects and how?

Learning algorithms can start to mold objects to better fit each of their users. The collected data can be used to improve the service for both for the individual user and for the overall group of users. In some cases, it might make sense to contribute data to a data pool or commons, where usage across many users can be compared and service improved.

Connected object collect a data “patina” from use. If designed right, they get better through use, gaining value and delivering better services the more they are used. This trend in turn could lead to more sustainable physical goods.

Rival vs. non-rival goods

Connectedness could make physical goods “less rival.”

Historically, physical objects are rival goods. That means if one person has it, no one else can have it. For example, I’m reading a paperback book, and unless you’re comfortable reading over someone’s shoulder, it’s not possible for you to read the book at the same time.

However, digital things are often “non-rival goods.” That means if I’m reading a digital copy of this book, you can also have a copy on your device that you’re reading at the same time.

When we add connectivity to an object, could we start to use physical objects in a non-rival way?

When we imagine objects being shared, what if we consider usage beyond the household — neighbors, friends, the broader world? What if an object could even be used by several of these groups at the same time?

How can we build and use objects in the connected home so that others can use them as well? Is there a way to build shared resources in the connected home, for example through pooling and sharing computational capacity when we don’t need all of our processors’ full capacity?

There are many questions to further explore here. The early days of collaborative consumption and the sharing economy can provide some useful pointers in the right direction.

Some of the key concerns we see:

  • Trust management. If we have pseudo-non-rival goods being shared thanks to their connectivity, how do we facilitate trust among users?
  • Value add through usage. How do we design connected objects to improve, rather than degrade, through use? Algorithmic learning seems to offer promising avenues to explore.
  • Modularity. Because shared connected objects will get a lot of usage (hopefully), they should be built to be easily maintained and repaired.
  • Privacy. In connected objects, multiple users means that we need to firewall against data leaks between users. If user or aggregate data is to be shared back into larger services or the commons, that data needs to be squeaky clean to make sure it cannot be linked back to individual users if they have opted out.
  • Decision-making and resource coordination. Do we need technological or design solutions to make decision-making and allocation of shared resources easier, or is that a social challenge in need of a social solution? Can a connected object be designed to facilitate this resource coordination?

Connected objects offer a great opportunity for designers and technologists to explore how sharing could add value and increase usage and lifecycle of physical objects.

Moving in and out of homes

A connected home is a home kitted out with sensors and network infrastructure — it is essentially a computer we live in.

That means we need to consider implications of security and control. It also means we need to think about technical failure and personal data.

Most failure situations in a connected home are likely to be variations of:

  • Users not understanding their home’s infrastructure
  • Things clashing with things

Designing interactions to mitigate these issues and building them in a way that is reliable and user-readable (read: fixable) will be key. You don’t want your flat’s operating system to crash on you.

Computers crash

Not understanding your home (or not being understood by it) is bad enough. But what happens in case of a more fundamental crash? What does the blue screen of death look like for a home?

he blue screen of death, universal symbol of crashed computer systems (Source: Wikipedia, Licensed under Public Domain)

Can you reboot your apartment? How? Have you tried turning it off and on again?

Often, a simple reboot of the wifi router or oven will do the trick. But what about more systemic cascading crashes? The more complex a networked system the more likely bugs and crashes are to domino. Currently we don’t have the infrastructure — or help hotline — to help us fix these issues.

Moving in & out

We don’t know yet what kind of data will be common to be created in the apartment and moved with us from one place to another. But we do know that moving with both data and preference settings will be “a thing” we all do.

As a way of exploring mechanism that might help us with this process (independently from the types of data), we created a bit of speculative design for The Good Home, the Home Totem:

The Home Totem represents the owner’s privacy and sharing preferences. It also serves as a link between the home and the owner’s secure data or profile on the internet. Think dietary requirements, energy consumption profiles, records of former home ownership and the like.
The Home Totem is a physical avatar that the owner moves from home to home. When they move in, they set down the Home Totem and the home adjusts its privacy and sharing preferences accordingly. By moving it from one connected home to another they transfer their preferences to the new home and establish residency. In a sense, it is the heart of the connected home as far as the residents are concerned.
The Home Totem is a piece of speculative design created by Peter Bihr for The Good Home Project.

The core idea is to make it easy to establish residency by simply putting down this symbolic object. It would hide the backend work of setting preferences, linking a digital ID to the place, etc.

In the sketch you’ll notice that the Home Totem consists of several pieces stacked on top of one another. This might be a blunt, but intuitive way to allow for moving in and out of shared living situations.

What happens when you move out of your home?

When stacked, shared residency and preference/data settings are in effect. Upon moving in or out, you would add or remove your piece from the stack, triggering a change of the settings.

As we fill our networked homes in personal data, as our kitchen clouds and algorithmic assistants learn about our behaviors and preferences, we imprint ourselves on our living spaces not just physically as we have done traditionally, but also digitally, through data.

And much like we tend to renovate and paint the walls either upon moving in or moving out (depending on which country you’re in) we’ll want to do the same on the data & algorithmic level. In other words, what does it look like to reset the apartment?

Just like we don’t want to leave any smudges or holes on a wall after living at a place, we don’t want to hand over a house with our data still inside it. Fresh coat of paint, please.

Factory Reset

So how does a factory reset work? Does it wipe all data completely? Are there parts of our home’s neural network that cannot be fully wiped, just like really old houses have grooves in their wooden floors from generations of people walking the same beeline from bedroom to bathroom?

When we arrive in a new place, do we start from scratch or do we transfer everything over to the new place? (Think about the hassle it still is to move your data and settings to a new computer!)

What if the location change is only part of what’s new? For example, what happens if a couple splits up, and their home’s data sets were generated by two people, and now the new place is for one? Will data from a bachelor pad seep into a new shared couple’s space, like some old Bob Marley poster? Will it be greeted by the other data set with a similar kind of resentment as its physical counterpart? When children grow up and leave the home, do they take their childhood data with them? Or does it get boxed up and stored as mementos, to be recalled and possibly discarded at a later date, while meanwhile clogging up their parents’ basement?

Maintenance and logging

As another contribution to The Good Home project, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino created the Home Sweet:

When we think of the home in the UK, we’re talking about a living and breathing infrastructure which moves and reacts to its environment. I’ve lived in homes that have leaked, had to replace boilers, flooring, tiles, grout. It’s always felt like an endless battle, and many moves in London have added to the feeling of unsteadiness. Every time I move, I ask the same questions: the landlord’s details, where the meters are, how to turn on the taps without burning myself. I get insurance policies moved over, making a set of assumptions on information I don’t have yet: when the building was built, whether there has been subsidence recently. I bring in my own data but I also need a lot of information that belongs to the home itself.
Home Sweet is a sketch of a digital service that captures and hosts a home’s data forever (presumably set up by the local council) enabling owners and tenants to come and go with their own data but also leave something behind for the next person.

There is potentially great value to be gained by logging and unlocking this type of data and building services around is.

Think about just how much easier it makes the life of residents to be able to tap into this kind of maintenance log, find out who has in the past provided reliable maintenance and repair services (or botched them up), to see if there are bits and pieces of infrastructure that have been creating problems over and over.

When buying a home, this type of data is notoriously hard to find or verify, yet priceless. The documentation on infrastructure in homes (especially older ones) is usually thin and bad. This holds especially true in cities where there is a higher turnover of residents.

There is tremendous potential in figuring out how we handle data residue when moving in and out, and how to unlock services built on top of this type of data. This goes for the individual unit as much as for the neighborhood or city-wide level.

How do we merge our individual sets of “home data” when moving together, and divide it up upon moving out?

What do failure modes in connected homes look like? Is there an off switch? How can we build and design connected homes to be resilient and if they fail to do so gracefully?

Who controls your home?

As homes become more connected and software-based, access and rights control become more salient: Who controls your home?

When our homes become connected and more software-based, it will be software that grants or denies the rights to use and change everything that goes on inside the room. (At least everything that has a digital or data aspect to it.) This suggests that going forward, access and control over the home might resemble access and control over digital media content.

The problem with Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Enter Digital Rights Management: DRM for short. Time for a little refresher.

The world of commercially distributed digital content — movies, music, books — has been shaped by discussions about Digital Rights Management, or Digital Restrictions Management as some critics call it. DRM is a set of technological systems that aim to control who can and who cannot access digital media and under what conditions.

The concept sounds simple enough: Is this paid content? If so, has this user paid and is therefore eligible to consume it?

But it isn’t quite as simple. In fact, DRM is highly controversial. Because it works on the premise of restricting access, often it punishes legitimate uses. The files or streams a customer pays for are those with built-in restrictive technologies. In other words, the customer pays for damaged files, whereas a (potentially illegally) downloaded version would usually be free of such restrictions.

If this sounds silly, it’s because it is. A label can never predict how a buyer of music or film might want to consume the music they bought — yet often DRM measures restrict playback of a song or movie to certain devices, operating systems, or contexts.

This is so confusing and limiting. Even when someone pays for content legally, their freedom to use it is not guaranteed.

In What We Buy When We “Buy Now”, a paper forthcoming in The University of Pennsylvania Law Review, respected copyright scholars Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Jay Hoofnagle report on an experiment testing what people think they get for their money when they click “buy now” in stores selling digital things (ebooks, games, music, videos, etc). In short, it’s not what they think.

So while there is certainly a need to raise consumer’s media literacy here, it’s also not primarily their fault. The study shows that retailers use misleading language all along:

“Retailers such as Apple and Amazon market digital media to consumers using the familiar language of product ownership, including phrases like ‘buy now,’ ‘own,’ and ‘purchase.’
Consumers may understandably associate such language with strong personal property rights.
But the license agreements and terms of use associated with these transactions tell a different story. They explain that ebooks, mp3 albums, digital movies, games, and software are not sold, but merely licensed. The terms limit consumers’ ability to resell, lend, transfer, and even retain possession of the digital media they acquire. Moreover, unlike physical media products, access to digital media is contingent-it depends on shifting business models, the success and failure of platforms, and often on the maintenance and availability of DRM authentication systems years after the consumer clicked ‘buy now.’”

DRM for the home: Residential Rights Management

Now we have to assume that similar challenges will arise around the connected home. Only there, the effect would be compounded as it would affect on our essential domestic infrastructure.

Let us be blunt: DRM for domestic infrastructure — Residential Rights Management if you will — should under no circumstance become part of our homes.

Rights managements is hard to understand. If you’ve ever encountered a situation where you needed to assign read/write/execute rights for a personal computer, server or network without proper training, you’ll know how confusing this is — even professionals regularly fail at selecting the appropriate permissions settings.

In a connected home, we’d have to work with complex, interdependent access rights to buildings, apartments, rooms, devices, users — all of which are entirely non-intuitive to handle.

With connectivity come power struggles and access & rights management.

Who has root to your home?

Root access is what we call full, unfettered access — including the rights to shut out other users, delete all data and install any program.

Who are the parties who have this kind of access to your home? Even at the best of times, scenarios where another entity, person, or organization has control over your home seem problematic. Screw-ups seem both unavoidable and potentially horrendous.

For a little taster of power struggles to come, consider the following scenarios and questions of remotely controlled rights or restrictions management:

  • A renter is late on their payment. Can the landlord shut down services or access until the rent is paid? Potentially non-essential services like air conditioning? Essential services like plumbing? Access to the apartment? Under which conditions?
  • A teenager comes home later than agreed with their parents and finds the door does not unlock. The parents, feeling wronged and slightly vindictive, set up the home’s smart lock not to let their kid in after 10pm. And the teenager doesn’t have the permissions to override it.
  • An elderly person in an assistive living facility wants to cook a meal. Yet, the oven won’t turn on this morning. An algorithm set up by their son has decided to reduce the risk of fire and burns, so the resident’s usage rights to the oven were remotely revoked.
  • A malicious landlord wants to get rid off a renter and starts messing with lights and heating.What kind of recourse do renters have if they lose control of the infrastructure they live in?
  • A resident is a diabetic. Can their health insurance track if a diabetic takes any sweet beverage or food out of the fridge? Could the insurance company block access to the fridge? Or could they modify orders for grocery delivery services?
  • A young couple is two weeks late on their mortgage payments. Can the bank shut them out of their homes by taking them off list of authorized users in the smart lock’s facial recognition system?

We chose those pointedly dystopian scenarios for a reason. Many of them begin with a legitimate reason, concern, or gripe — and then they go overboard, leveraging connected home systems in ways that go entirely beyond what’s acceptable.

We believe that residents should be in control of their domestic lives. As a rule of thumb, no company or other entity should unilaterally be in a position to shut down services in the home. Nor should companies be able to sweepingly change terms and services, like they currently do on our personal computing environments. The iTunes Terms of Services just changed.

We need to ask ourselves: Who controls — or should be able to control — access to and within a home? Is it going to be the resident, landlord, owner, renter? An insurance, bank, or Airbnb? What are the kind of legal frameworks that can ensure that residents are in charge of their home?

The home is a space that needs special protections.

Inviting connected objects into our homes

How do we choose which connected objects to invite into our homes?

Which connected objects do we invite into our homes? We believe that fundamentally, when answering this question, we should not consider connected objects differently than any other object.

However, as a matter of personal philosophy we believe that it pays to be mindful of what we surround ourselves with. As connected things in our homes might change through software updates or learning algorithms, a careful look at what we invite in is certainly warranted.

Mindful ownership

“You are what you eat,” the saying goes. In the same spirit, you are what you own. Just like one can be mindful about their diet in an effort to have a healthy, balanced body, one can also be mindful about the objects one invites into their lives to ensure a healthy, balanced environment.

The home is where we house most of our possessions. It matters what we choose to surround ourselves with. A comfortable chair makes us feel at ease and supports us. A cherished family memento makes us feel loved. A malfunctioning appliance causes frustration.

Objects affect us. In the connected home, we should be mindful about what we invite in.

“Solving problems” isn’t the only criterion

In technology circles, a lot of attention is given to building useful things and then to optimizing them. Does this fix something? Does it solve a problem? If so, how can we solve it more efficiently?

Yet, the ability of an object to “solve a problem” isn’t the only criterion humans have when choosing the things they surround themselves with. The urge to replace human judgments with algorithms and optimized efficiency has its limitations.

“Constructing a world preoccupied only with the most efficient outcomes — rather than with the processes through which those outcomes are achieved — is not likely to make them aware of the depth of human passion, dignity, and respect.” — Evgeny Morozov

As we imagine the connected home, one that helps us be more human and that brings us joy, we must explore a fuller set of selection criteria when deciding what objects to invite into it.

Four categories of objects

A possible set of criteria for personal possessions is laid out by the science fiction writer and design critic Bruce Sterling:

1. Beautiful things.
2. Emotionally important things.
3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
4. Everything else.

Sterling explains how to assess the objects you own using these categories. He encourages the mindful selection of the objects you surround yourself with everyday.

You are not “losing things” by acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter — in the everyday.

Does it spark joy?

An even more compressed approach is suggested by Japanese “tidying up” specialist and best-selling author Marie Kondo. She advocates for using just one question when deciding whether to have an object in your home:

Does it spark joy?

Her argument is that if an object is useful, it will spark joy because you acknowledge its ability. If it’s beautiful, it will also bring joy. If it’s emotionally important, you will also recognize that through joy.

Make joyful objects

Humans deploy a range of criteria when selecting what objects to invite and keep in their homes. The ability for an object to solve a problem is certainly a factor, but not the only one.

As we build and consider things for the connected home, let us bear in mind the other ways in which objects help us be human: Are they beautiful? Are they emotionally important? Do they spark joy?

Surveillance & tracking

As we have learned over the last few years through the Snowden revelations, we live in a system of ubiquitous, nearly limitless tracking and surveillance. It’s to a degree which easily matches the dystopian scenarios of even the most paranoid security activists. Our every step, at least in the digital world, is watched by commercial entities and governments. Directly or through meta-data, complete privacy is impossible.

Here are four kinds of tracking:

Personalization and context-aware services are a kind of tracking and surveillance we voluntarily agree to. These assistants could not work without being aware of where we are and what we have been doing. Therefore, we allow them access to this information in exchange for personalized recommendations and search results.

Other types of tracking are more obscure and more invasive, and they often come from advertisers. We might unknowingly agreed to data mining by installing an app and clicking “yes” on a lengthy, impenetrable end user license agreement. A so-called super cookie tracks our behavior across the web, even long after we have logged out of the service that initially installed it. Adtech can be nasty business indeed.

Another type of tracking — usually referred to as surveillance — comes from governments who tap into our devices and communications channels. Historically, at least in democratic regimes, surveillance was prohibited against the country’s own citizens, with limited exceptions for criminal investigations. Every non-citizen was considered fair game for intelligence services. Since Snowden, we have evidence that most democratic countries run extensive surveillance on their own citizens, directly or indirectly exchanging data about their citizens with other countries: I’ll watch your citizens for you, you’ll watch mine.

Lastly, there is criminal cracking of our systems. Malware, trojan horses, fraud, taking over devices and using them for nefarious purposes are common tactics. A recent story got lots of media attention when a criminal network took control of internet-enabled fridges and used them to send spam and run coordinated denial-of-service attacks. It would be funny if it didn’t stand for a serious, larger problem.

Tracking and surveillance are a serious problem

Tracking and surveillance are a serious problem for digital communications, for the internet of things, and especially for the connected home.

They hinder innovation as they undermine trust in these new technologies, and rightfully so. More importantly, they undermine the social contract that our society runs on.

Increasingly, user rights equal citizens rights.

A recent study by the US Census Bureau found that nearly one in two internet users say privacy and security concerns have now stopped them from doing basic things online:

“Americans are increasingly concerned about online security and privacy at a time when data breaches, cybersecurity incidents, and controversies over the privacy of online services have become more prominent.”

The report suggest that this has reached a critical point — people stop using the internet altogether. “The research suggests some consumers are reaching a tipping point where they feel they can no longer trust using the internet for everyday activities.”

The report provided a breakdown of internet users’ biggest concerns:

  • Nearly two thirds listed identify theft (63%)
  • About a quarter was worried about data collection by online services (23%)
  • Just about one in five was concerned about loss of control over personal data (22%) and data collection by government (18%).

It is this last point that is particularly concerning from a political and societal point of view, but really it is the full package that means we are in trouble.

Now this study focused on internet use, not the internet of things. But it is safe to assume that for IoT, and especially the connected home, these concerns will be as strong or stronger.

Governments are surveilling IoT, including in the home

The US intelligence services have publicly stated their intentions to use connected devices for mass surveillance. Other governments won’t be far behind.

In a 2012 WIRED interview, CIA director David Patraeus called the surveillance implication of the internet of things “transformational… particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.”

More recently, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, stated that “intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.”

The consequences to these developments were highlighted in a study by the Berkman Center called Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the “Going Dark” Debate (PDF). The internet of things — and again, this applies particularly in the connected home — might be a back door that helps criminals and governments alike to work their way around all other defenses (technological and legal alike) and towards a ubiquitous surveillance.

“Networked sensors and the Internet of Things are projected to grow substantially, and this has the potential to drastically change surveillance. The still images, video, and audio captured by these devices may enable real-time intercept and recording with after-the fact access. Thus an inability to monitor and encrypt channels could be mitigated by the ability to monitor from afar a person through a different channel.”

It does not help at all that the majority of users find it difficult to figure out the right tools and strategies to meaningfully enhance their privacy, as a 2015 Pew Research study found. Again, this is for online communications — and it will apply to an even larger degree to IoT in general and to connected homes in particular.

Yet, taking privacy in their own hands might be the only way for users to protect themselves given the sad state of security in IoT these days. This is verified with a quick look at search engine Shodan.io, which indexes thousands of unsecured web-connected devices.

We have to build safeguards against tracking and surveillance in the connected home

It looks that as of today, we have to assume we are being tracked and surveilled, with benevolent and nefarious purposes, by good and bad actors. We have few tools to defend ourselves, and they are hard to use. Civil society policy makers and scientists are scrambling to keep up rather than steering the course. It’s a bleak outlook indeed.

To get in front of a major catastrophe, we will need to work on all aspects of securing IoT and our connected homes:

  1. Educating policy makers and scientists to understand the implications of complex connected, data-driven systems, like IoT, connected homes, and smart cities, so we can get to a robust, resilient legal framework that governs tracking and surveillance both from commercial and government actors and protects our privacy.
  2. Educating users and citizens about the importance of security and privacy when living in connected environments so they demand stronger privacy and data protection, and we get to stronger regulation and market incentives for companies in the IoT market to make security and privacy a priority for connected products and services.

These are significant, hard, and complex challenges. Yet they are essential for us to tackle. We cannot, under any circumstances, afford to allow widespread surveillance into our homes.

Yet at the same time, disconnecting is not an option either. The innovation happening around IoT and connected homes has tremendous potential both commercially and societally, and can improve the quality of life of hundreds of millions.

While the journey might not be easy, this is an endeavor worth fighting for.

The authors

Peter Bihr (@peterbihr) explores the impact of emerging technologies. He founded The Waving Cat to apply these insights through consulting, R&D, conferences and publications. As a strategy advisor, he helps organizations large and small to excel in an environment shaped by digitization, connectedness and rapid change.He co-founded many emerging technology conferences including ThingsCon, UIKonf and Cognitive Cities Conference and co-chaired Interaction16. He also co-founded the Good Home Project.

Michelle Thorne (@thornet) leads Mozilla’s exploration of the Internet of Things. She serves a professional learning community seeking to shape IoT with openness and user empowerment. Previously, as Mozilla’s Director of Web Literacy Programs, she supported thousands of professional educators and activists to teach and advocate for the web. Michelle has a dedicated interest in open practices and design, curating the Mozilla Festival, exhibiting with The Good Home, writing for Open Design Now and co-authoring the book An Open Web.

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