Smart Environments

Total surveillance or a possibility to design a delightful user experience?

When it comes to a time where everything that can be tracked will be tracked, a world of total surveillance seems inevitable. How would a world look like when every thought, utterance, and action is captured, archived, analyzed, and eventually anticipated by others? Who is watching us and why?

In fact, it is happening right now. When we have a look at public spaces, the UK for example has 1% of world’s population but 20% of its CCTV cameras, it will allow the government to watch us, which may not matter now, but in the wrong hands, can be catastrophic. It seems, that there is a big mistrust between government and the people. Benjamin Franklin once said „Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.“

Beside video surveillance, there are a lot more things that will emerge into the physical space — which will, if done right, definitely have positive effects. So called Smart Environments „use a combination of sensors to identify and deliver personalized services to the user when they are interacting and exchanging information with the environment.“

Sean Maddens’ article describes the positive sides of tracking and that it can be convenient and not creepy. He explains it with the example of the Disney Magic Band which is used by customers who visit the Disney World theme park. It is used to unlock the hotel room, buy food and merchandise and much more personalized services. After the user has entered the theme park, he will be tracked the whole time. Because the user is aware of this tracking in the „closed“ environment and is more or less in control, it can be a quite magic experience. In this case the balance between the benefits for the provider and the user are at the same level: The company gets the ability to accurately target offerings and promotions, while the customer gets greater convenience, more customization, and a bit of magic. Madden describes it as „you tell me your preferences and background, and I change the way I act in order to accommodate them“.

But what if, when we leave this „closed“ environment? What if every place can collect data which will not necessarily be obvious or active? The technology is invisible and unavoidable. Through the placement of sensors, personal information can be collected which once put in context, can be used for the delivery of personalized services. “The core aim of smart environments is to provide personalized interactions but at the same time, the potential for misuse of information is massive”.

All the tracked data can be used for profiling. Related to the Information Commissioner’s Office, “profiling can enable aspects of an individual’s personality or behavior, interests and habits to be determined, analyzed and predicted”. While walking in the streets, every thought and action of us will be captured without our notice and can be used by companies, the government or others. Combined with other personal data in a centralized place, it can be used as a powerful tool to influence someones behaviors. „One study conducted by the Ohio State University revealed that behaviorally targeted adverts can have psychological consequences and affect individuals’ self-perception.“

Gilad Rosner posted an article about how Google uses its Voice Assistant “Google Home” for subliminal advertising. When I buy a smart assistant from a retail company like Amazon, then I should be aware of, that the major aim of my „friend“ might be to sell me something because it is the nature of their business model. Regarding to Ryan Calo of the University of Washington, is the problem, that firms write their own rules, with their own goals in mind. „Our things will contain tiny salesmen with a fortitude and patience born of intense corporate resources and economic incentives.

In the end, user want personalized interactions but at the same time, they want to have the control about what they want to offer and what not. According to Alan Westin “privacy is the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information is communicated to others”.

The aim of Smart Environments should be to create a seamless experience without violating trust. This is just as much a design problem as it is an ethical one. With emerging technologies in our physical space, “companies become more intimate than even family members”, Madden said. “It’s folly to focus only on the data, and not on the people it measures.“ If you want to get intimate data, in return you have to act in an adequate way.

Not only related to increasing data gathering but also to the progress in their automated analysis, a fierce debate about decentralized systems, self-determination and transparency began. It is in our hands to decide how data is collected and for what it will be used.