Monitoring, privacy and surveillance…within the smart home.

With the advent of smart home technologies, the threat of security breaches and privacy violations by external forces have been a hot topic for research — but what about intrusions from within the home itself? How does inhabitants’ monitoring of the domestic environment impact their connection with the space, and the people they share it with?

A home is a safe place in which people can truly be themselves. It is the place, as outlined by article 8 in the Human Rights Act, where we can expect our privacy to be respected. Security and privacy is also the area in which smart home technology is expected to grow next, with 6% of people in recent UK market research saying they expect to purchase a smart security device in the next 12 months. Paradoxically, security and privacy concerns are also consistently found to be one of the primary barriers to adoption of smart home technology. So, what are these privacy concerns, and how does installing connected devices make our homes more vulnerable?

Security and privacy concerns regarding the smart hardware and software are well known….

The amount of data that Internet of Things (IoT) devices can generate is vast. A Federal Trade Commission report entitled “Internet of Things: Privacy & Security in a Connected World” found that fewer than 10,000 households can generate 150 million discrete data points every day. Not only do connected smart home devices increase the amount of sensitive data generated about a home’s inhabitants, they also leave that very data vulnerable to potential unauthorised and inappropriate use by hackers and even by commercial, energy and (personal dystopian/conspiracy beliefs allowing) government organisations. Connected devices such as smart locks, switches and assistants have extended these security concerns to include physical access to the home itself — not only might these devices allow unauthorised access to the property, but remote control of household devices or services by unauthorised parties is also now possible. Numerous examples exist of various smart home systems being hacked, either as part of a test to identify potential platform vulnerabilities (as per the team of researchers at Microsoft and the University of Michigan who recently found a number of weaknesses, ripe for abuse within Samsung’s ‘SmartThings’ platform), or real situations, exploited by hackers with malicious intent.

Then there is the enormous amount of data generated by embedding sensors through the home. Inappropriate or contested use of this data requires no hacking at all — carefully crafted small print and T&C’s allows organisations to use the vast number of domestic data points generated to build highly detailed behavioural models, just as online retailers do, to exploit and target our desires with even greater efficiency in the future.

Data capture greed of organisations makes the inhabitants of smart homes vulnerable to security and privacy threats…

But why so much data? Do we really need to capture all of it? Especially if it leaves us so vulnerable to abuse? As Adam Greenfield points out, it is not for the benefit of the inhabitants that the data is being generated. Companies like Amazon and Google are pre-emptively capturing data, trawling up everything they can, because no one knows what value might be derived from the data in the future.

And let’s not forget the unfiltered and potentially intrusive nature of the data capture of an ‘always attentive’ device, such as a smart assistant product, that once activated by the “wake” word sends everything you say afterwards to its parent company server. Already there have been criminal cases where law-enforcement have demanded data collected via Alexa from Amazon as evidence in trials. In the case of a pool drowning, Amazon was able to contest the court-order for voice data, but smart meter data collected showed that large amounts of water, roughly the volume of the pool, were used around the time of death. Potential criminality aside, this example goes to show that these sensors and meters can paint a very revealing picture of how you behave behind closed doors.

Our research explores the security and privacy concerns regarding the domestic environment, as a result of the technology that has been embedded into it.

During the research that I outlined in my first article, several security issues emerged directly relating to the installation of smart technology into participants’ homes. Whilst the issue of ‘insecure smart assistants’, referenced in a previous article, potentially allows unauthorised access to private and sensitive data from within the home, the vulnerability is the consequence of the current capabilities of the technology, and will likely be addressed in future generations of the devices (hype cycle survival permitting). But what about the unforeseen impact of this technology upon behaviour and relationship dynamics? What about the unanticipated ways in which the technology might be used within the home?

‘Within-home surveillance’ a behavioural by-product of smart technology installation.

Two different types of within-home surveillance emerged during our research. The support of these behaviours were not the initial reason the smart devices were purchased, but were instead the unintended result of introducing smart technology into the home. The first, an indirect monitoring of behaviour, was borne from Economisers (an archetype I developed and introduced in my first article) evaluating domestic behaviour from a cost perspective. Reading the data from smart meters, Economisers associated the distinct energy graphs with specific causal behaviour — the realisation of which altered the individuals’ relationship with the technology. No longer just a smart meter providing feedback on energy efficiency, the singular connected device became a behavioural surveillance centre, monitoring the activities of inhabitants exclusively for the information of (usually) the solo ‘observer’, the person who had been responsible for the installation of the device.

“I know now what the shower shape is on the meter. My son will tell me that he’s having a shower upstairs, but I’ll stand here by the meter and I will see whether he really is or not. Neither of the kids know about this. It used to be difficult [to tell whether they were having a shower] because of the layout of the house. They can’t work out how I’ve suddenly become so in the know.” Sheryl*, lives with partner and two teenage kids.

Monitoring a data picture of showering is fairly low on the spectrum of intrusion, right? But what about the unforeseen consequences of this type of within-home surveillance? When does this monitoring of behaviour become intrusive or restrictive? What impact does this new form of surveillance, in which not only ones’ in-home behaviours are exposed for interpretation, but their every move is quantified and priced for the consideration of the household jury, have on a person’s sense of the home space and their freedom to use it as they wish?

As childcare costs increase, could we start to see the rise of ‘smart’ childminding and dystopian parenting? And at what cost to child development?

The second type of surveillance we observed in our research was direct monitoring, and arose from a place of care and a desire to protect loved ones. People turned smart cameras ‘inwards’, training their lenses on the other members of the household. With rising and unaffordable childcare costs, one family relied on the use of their smart cameras to reassure them that their son was safe during the hours that he was home alone after school, before they returned from work in the evening.

“It’s funny because [our son] knows we have the camera, but he oh-so-quickly forgets. I’ll log on via the app and I’ll catch him doing things he’s not supposed to, like eating the crisps from the snack cupboard. I’ll mention it later, and he’ll be annoyed he’s not got away with it. There’s no arguing about it when I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Max*, lives with his girlfriend and her son.

Watching household members in this way is certainly more obtrusive than simply analysing the data picture, but is it really that different to the level of passive surveillance we’ve become used to in public spaces? And so long as the privacy of some spaces, like bathrooms and bedrooms, are respected, surely installing a few cameras for the right reasons doesn’t do any harm, right? Well, perhaps — but what if within-home surveillance becomes normalised? Will we see a gradual erosion of respect for privacy with the increase of covert surveillance within the home?

“It occurred to me that I should put cameras in the rooms the kids play in. That way when our nieces and nephews come over we can keep an eye on what they’re all doing — there won’t be any more “he did this, or she did that”, we will know exactly what’s happened, who started it, and can sort out or stop arguments.” Max*, lives with his girlfriend and her son.

Keeping an eye on children in this way seems fairly innocuous. In fact, it might even seem like efficient parenting — disputes are quickly resolved, and catastrophes are avoided. It’ll mean kids probably fall out with each other less, and with fitting reprimands dished out, children will quickly learn what’s acceptable, ultimately getting into less trouble and having a more enjoyable time.

But what about the wider impact of such ‘smart’ parenting on a child’s relationship with their home, and their parents? How will the sense of being under surveillance ultimately affect their personal development? Well, in general terms, studies have consistently found people under surveillance have reported higher levels of anxiety, anger, and depression. Elias Aboujaoude, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, contends that our need for privacy and true autonomy is rooted in the concept of individuation, the process by which we develop and maintain an independent identity. It’s a crucial journey that begins in childhood, as we learn to separate our own identity from that of our parents, and continues through adulthood. By introducing technology that removes private spaces in the home in which children can experiment and play, parents could be reducing important identity forming moments. Furthermore, a lack of autonomy will require less deliberation and reflection from a child -no longer will they need to consider what to share with a parent, and what to keep back. With regards to relationship forming; with such surveillance, the moments of interaction between child and parent will change, reducing shared experiences and bonding opportunities. By introducing technology into the home without consideration for the impact on the domestic environment as a whole, are we ourselves being insensitive to the privacy rights of the people we live with?

Whilst the inadvertent and somewhat undesirable aspects of the smart home technologies surveillance attributes are drawn out in the research, it’s important to note that the ability to monitor home activity remotely is by no means invaluable. When it comes to care for the elderly, or for those with mobility issues, the distance afforded by the remote nature of the surveillance can actually reduce the overt-sensation of being monitored, instead giving back independence, autonomy and ultimately dignity to people who have experienced a change in lifestyle. More of that in future articles.

Remote curtain twitching; an inadvertent consequence of smart security?

With the advent of smart technologies, surveillance is not restricted to those inhabiting the home. Smart doorbells enable residents to gaze out of their property on to the neighbourhood, allowing curtains to be twitched remotely and giving smart tech owners the opportunity to permanently record and save footage of activities carried out outside of their home.

“We got [Ring doorbell] when we moved into the house. It’s not an area where we would need a security system, it was more the fact that we love gadgets. It’s such a handy thing, besides the motion sensor and seeing who moves near your house, you can answer the door no matter where you are. After, we decided to get a Ring camera for the back garden also. Sometimes at work I just switch it on and watch what’s going on in the street.” Asia*, lives with her husband.

We live in a culture where passive surveillance and reality TV have desensitised our regard for privacy in general, but especially the privacy of others. It’s one thing that law enforcement surveil public spaces in the UK with the objective of reducing or solving crime, but entirely another to actively monitor people whom you may know and have a personal relationship with, without their knowledge, when in and around their home space — especially if the purpose is simply to fulfil personal curiosity or alleviate boredom. When conducting research, we must obtain consent before we record any session. Should there not then be restrictions in place to protect unwitting neighbours against remote and recorded voyeurism, as they go about their lives? Participants in reality TV shows do knowingly sign up for such participation, after all. Whilst perhaps unintended at point of purchase, smart technology such as the smart doorbell and security cameras can encourage the ultimate intrusion on privacy.

What do these unexpected consequences regarding privacy and security spell for the future of smart tech?

Privacy is one of the key values that people attribute to the meaning of ‘home’. Installing smart home devices which discreetly collect and disseminate information about our decisions and actions within the home, could inadvertently encourage a big brother approach to cohabiting, parenting and neighbouring, threatening our core connection with this uniquely emotional of spaces. Might these unexpected consequences result in a backlash or rejection of such products and services in the long term? Our initial piece of research suggests there is not enough knowledge and understanding around the implications of eroding privacy from within the home, nor about the rights to privacy we afford to those we share our homes with. Are we, as inhabitants, ready for the impact of unobtrusive monitoring on our ability to retreat and be ourselves, without apology or judgement? And how will organisations, service providers and manufacturers trading off such technology be affected in the long run, if they don’t take action and explore the impact of technology on security and privacy within the home now?

For those who value their privacy more than a convenience trade-off, there’s an opportunity for designers to develop home devices that ‘behave’ smartly. The objects still ‘speak’ to one another, but are not connected to the internet and therefore are not capturing vast amounts of data about how we live our lives. Why, for instance, do smart lights need to be connected to the internet? How often do people switch them on and off while they are outside the house? Could geo-fencing and timers not solve the majority of our needs in this area? Ikea has already made a local hub solution for lighting, giving users the ability to reinstate a little control over the information they share with organisations. Might there be the space for a company to provide an ‘under the radar’ solution to the Google and Amazon data trawlers?

In previous articles I’ve discussed the need to prevent the creation of insensitive technology. This includes the creation of technology which causes us to be insensitive to those around us, particularly those with whom we share our homes and neighbourhoods. As designers, manufacturers and service providers, we need to further explore the impact of installing smart technologies’ into the home environment as a whole, in order to develop technology that is truly useful and that will stand the test of time.

Watch out for more of my articles in our sensitive environmental design series, which will focus on Socially insensitive tech… in the home, Relationship dynamics in the smart home, Care & support within the smart home — augmenting human abilities, Quality of space, and Growing up with Smart Technology’

Siobhan is a design researcher specialising in qualitative research. For the last 10 years she’s been going ‘undercover’ to explore how people interact with the products and services they use, in order to inform design decisions. Her work has taken her to East Africa to understand and design for the healthcare and lifestyle challenges faced by patients suffering with hypertension, to a range of different countries in Asia to explore business culture in all its nuances, and to hangout on rooftops and building sites of tradespeople, to understand the complexities and challenges of their working lives.

Siobhan is responsible for designing the sensitive spaces project for Modern Human. This has been a ‘lay of the land’ piece of research, identifying a number of areas of interest for further exploration. If you would like to explore any of the research topics or findings raised within the Sensitive spaces project, please get in touch

*All names have been changed to protect participants’ identities.

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