Understanding the Connected Home: My personal data sphere

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This blog post is an excerpt from Understanding the Connected Home, an ongoing exploration on the implications of connectivity on our living spaces. The whole collection is available as a (free) ebook: Understanding the Connected Home: Thoughts on living in tomorrow’s connected home

Through our smartphones, we have instant access to all our data. A personal cloud of data that travels with us.

But even though we know that (meta-)data about us and our whereabouts is constantly sent back to various entities – tech & advertising companies, government agencies, telcos – context-triggered data exchanges beyond the most basic level are still relatively rare. Despite all the efforts of Google Now, Siri, Cortana & co, most of the time we need to actively seek out the data/app/info we are looking for. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but it might change for the connected home.

Bringing data & preferences along

Lots of current scenarios for smart buildings advertise personalization and adapting to personal preferences, particularly in regards to climate control (temperature, humidity), lighting (colors, brightness), settings (music, mood lighting, window blinds).

This is legit, and in fact might play an important role – for example, Philips research suggests that older workforce requires much brighter light than younger workforce, and that the brightness of light at the workplace has serious impact on well-being.

So upon entering your home, or room (in shared living arrangements), or hotel room/rental apartment (in temporary/travel housing), it would make sense to communicate your prefences to the building so it can adapt accordingly.

We are surrounded by a sphere of personal data that moves through time and space with us, and it might linger here and there.

Currently, we don’t have a universal mechanism to communicate our preferences to a building. Of course, many home automation companies are working on just that, at varying degrees of standardization.

What are the next steps here, what’s the big vision? What kind of data might be interesting to bring into a home, to take out of a home, to take along to a new place? What kind of data might we want to bring along into connected cars? What do we want to share with the smart city in all its manifestations? These are big research questions.

How do we transmit personal data to our environment? What are the models to transfer all these types of data (preferences, settings, etc.)? Should this happen through the cloud? Through apps and our phones? Should we carry one piece of digital ID (built into the phone or wearables) that just serves as an identifier to then download our things from the internet, or should it all be stored locally? What do the interaction models look like?

Our homes need to honor our needs and rights

Much more tricky is how we will deal with our preferences regarding various levels of scanning, sharing data, and (by extension) surveillance.

On the web, our behavior is constantly tracked by advertising companies and other, even less savory organizations. This happens almost entirely without our consent, frequently under dubious ethical and legal practices, largely without recourse.

On the web, the only means of protection are personal education in the matter (to at least understand what’s going on) as well as technical measures, like ad & tracking blockers, as well as browser features/plug-ins like Do Not Track. Between them, these measures provide a certain measure of privacy, but neither is this sufficient nor is it sufficiently easy. We got to this point because for too long, the open nature of the web allowed bad players to foster a culture of tracking without recourse or penalties.

For the context of the connected home, we may not commit these same mistakes. We need to establish standards, regulatory frameworks and a culture that respects the ethical dimensions of the safe place that is the home.

Ethics are implemented at the design level

One key aspect to this happens at the product design level, where designers of connected home products and services will need to invest extraordinary efforts into aspects like:

  • Security: Networked systems are inherently prone to hard-to-predict failure and abuses.
  • Sustainability: Not just materials need to be high-quality enough to stay in our homes for long times, but also the software side of things. If the software that runs a smoke detector or oven or smart lock stops working 5 years from now, we’re in deep trouble.
  • User empowerment: The user needs to be the one (and only) party in control of their home devices.
  • Privacy: No other parties may sniff the users data and share it with other parties.

Negotiating agreements

The other aspect is the negotiating of agreements on a (semi-)automatic level. Even more than on the web, in the physical space we need to be in control of our privacy.

CCTV cameras in the public space are somewhat controversial because they do not help prevent crimes but increase the level of surveillance; wifi sniffing trash cans (like implemented, then abandoned, in London a few years back), crossed the line. This is a case-by-case negotation of what’s acceptable in the public environment.

In homes – both permanent and temporary – tougher rules should apply. Privacy is key, and strict privacy protection must be the default. We need opt-in, not opt-out, to the sharing of personal information.

So what could that look like? What’s the interface for negotiating these questions? What are the social norms going to be? What kind of recourse might there be for cases of abuse?

We cannot yet answer these questions but can make some educated guesses:

  • Social norms might solve many of these questions before they even become problematic. Most home owners might turn down “sniffing” levels to the lowest default, while some early adopters turn it up; in both cases their friends and peer group would self-select, exactly like it happens today: Some people use CCTV cameras on their premises, others don’t. Some have guns in their homes, others don’t. Some play loud music, others don’t. Not technological solution are at work here. Social self-selection, legal regulation and cultural norms are used to regulate these things.
  • Design principles that honor privacy will win the market. It makes sense to honor privacy in the home and to make it an overwhelmingly strong default, and the market might simply solve this as users vote with their money. Different regions/markets might produce different outcomes.
  • Smart contracts could provide a technological backend. Unlike in software and web services where users are routinely forced to accept (rationally often unacceptable) End User License Agreements (EULAs), there is a window of opportunity to create a better system for IoT in general and the connected home in particular. Each person could store their personal agreements on a digital ID that negotiates a deal with the connected environment. Say Alice the visitor is fine to be sniffed for wifi devices, refuses to be captured by CCTV, and doen’t have a strong prefence around mood lighting. Bob the home owner has similarly expressed his preferences. A relatively simple algorithm could match them up so that the camera stops recording, Bob’s mood lighting preferences overrule Alice’s (since she doesn’t care anyway) and the system does connected to Alice’s wifi devices because she agreed. For hightened security needs the blockchain could be used to verify these negotations. This might seem like overkill now, but might turn out to be relatively seemless and offer smooth sailing.
  • We need a Do Not Track for the physical space. As a lowest-common denominator, we might need Do Not Track not just for connected homes, but especially for smart cities and connected retails spaces: A device of sorts that allows us to reliably opt out of marketing and advertising tracking.

These rules and types of interactions need to be human and machine readable. For any of this to work, we need to come up with a way to communicate these rules in a format that is legible by humans and machines alike (like Creative Commons licenses). In other words, standardization for different types of data based interactions.

Key takeaways

  • We increasingly are surrounded by a sphere of personal data.
  • Our homes need to honor our rights and needs.
  • This protection needs to be implemented at the design and regulatory levels.
  • We need to develop mechanisms to negotiate our agreements to various types of data-based interactions.
  • Rules and types of data-based interactions need to be human and machine readable.

Further reading

We highly recommend Brett Gaylor’s interactive documentary Do Not Track.

This blog post is licensed under Creative Commons (by-nc).

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