As the festive season approaches, a time typically associated with the purchase of consumer electronics, a new category of goods is associated with the so-called smart home is emerging. To Nest’s thermostats and smoke detectors, we must add Dropcam, recently bought by the company, mobile cameras that can be placed anywhere in the home and monitored via smartphone, computer, or tablet. At the same time, Amazon is launching its Echo, a cylindrical digital know-it-all that is always connected and listening, and that we can ask just about any question.
But is there a downside to all this connectivity in the home? Obviously, hundreds of thousands of homes are already connected to alarm systems using cameras, but we also know that the people who work for security companies that monitor our homes when we’re not in them could also decide to watch what we’re up to when we are. I’m not saying it does go on, simply that it must have crossed many of our minds.
But of course while a security firm makes its money from selling alarms and monitoring our homes and has little to gain — and a great deal to lose — from using our data the wrong way, companies like Google and Amazon have based part of their business model on studying in detail the data we generate using their devices and services. And if we add to this the possibility that third parties might intercept data online, as has already happened in the case of innumerable web cams, then we might reasonably have cause for concern.
A number of recent articles highlight concerns about our privacy being invaded: Re/code has an item called “Come on, put this Google-owned surveillance device in your house, it’s gonna be great!”, while Gizmodo warns us: “How Nest is already using all that data from its army of smoke alarms.” Mashable describes Amazon’s Echo as “The strange device that’s probably more than it seems”, while The Joy of Tech takes a more typically comic line with an image of a couple talking into the device saying: “Jeff, can you hear me now?”
Fast company has created a parody of Amazon Echo’s official launch video along the lines of “the Echo strikes back”, with the device soon tiring of the family’s stupidity. Meanwhile, Nest’s own advertising plays on obsessive behavior, the opinion of a Luddite gramps, a destructive child, and a dog that is little short of a weapon of mass destruction. Intelligent humor, sure, and carefully directed at the geek sector than the average household, but that still recognize the fears that an all-seeing device in our homes provokes.
As they become more available, these technologies are going to provoke all sorts of responses in us, as we seek to weigh up the pros and cons (safety, convenience, savings, doubts…) of having a series of sensors and monitors connected to the internet. For how long after installing a Dropcam will we wonder if some hacker has accessed it, or a Nest employee is gathering information about us from it? What sinister uses can we imagine a smoke detector or thermostat being put to once they know about our personal habits? How much of an effort are these companies doing to be transparent about what they do with our data, so that we will come to accept them as part of our everyday lives?
There’s probably no reason to see any threat in these devices: for my part, I’m prepared to try them out and play down the possible risks in the meantime. But it takes time for society as a whole to overcome our collective perceptions. Ours is a generation whose ideas about privacy and the use of our personal data have changed rapidly. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for these devices to become part of the furniture, and whether our fears will be something we soon joke about, or if they end up becoming an obstacle to adoption.
(En español, aquí)