The paradox of the control room

Yesterday I was invited to speak as privacy expert at a conference on home automation organised by Dutch radio station BNR. The title of the conference was: ‘your house as a control room’. The title was apt, as it underscores two major issues in home automation and the ‘internet of things’ more generally: who’s in control, and who’s under control?

The conference started out with somewhat frivolous examples of home automation: an iPad-controlled coffee machine and a voice recognition device which allows you to remotely operate your lighting and music. In the second part, there was space for critical reflection.

The discussion quickly focused on privacy matters. I pointed out two risks.

Firstly, the amount of sensors in devices is exploding and most of the devices phone home to their company. Data generated in your house will be transmitted to outside servers, and can often be used for a broad range of purposes. Things like watching habits, energy usage, air quality but possibly also videos and stills might very well end up at remote data centers.

Secondly,  most of these devices are not only connected to the internet, but can also be operated from the internet. This means that others in theory have the possibility to turn off the lights, open the curtains, start playing music, open your doors, etc. Now, proper security measures should ensure that only the user itself controls these functions, but conceptually this is a completely different setup if we compare it with the ‘classical home. It is to be expected that law enforcement and intelligence agencies will use these capabilities for their own purposes (not against everyone, but still).

I concluded that doing home automation properly means that the user, not the supplier should be in control. This means that data should be stored at the device itself and sharing should in principle be opt-in. Devices should run on free and open source software, so as to enable the user to inspect, change and share the code with others.

Challenging? Yes, but essential for ensuring that our home remains our private space.