Or­wellian out­comes?

De­sire for smart-home con­ve­nience raises Big Brother specter.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - SO­NIA RAO

Ge­orge Or­well got a lot right about our so­ci­ety mov­ing to­ward a state of con­stant sur­veil­lance, but not ev­ery­thing.

“His pre­sump­tion was that peo­ple would lament and be de­pressed and op­pressed by all these de­vices that can watch them and lis­ten in,” said Matthew Rath­bun, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Cold­well Banker Elite. In­stead, “it seems to be that we’re run­ning to­ward them with glee.”

We set up mo­tion de­tec­tors in our houses. We in­stall cam­eras. We speak to Google Homes and Ama­zon Echoes as we would ac­tual hu­mans and al­low them to lis­ten in on our daily lives. As a real es­tate agent, Rath­bun has in­creas­ingly found a need to fa­mil­iar­ize him­self with this tech­nol­ogy; ac­cord­ing to a 2017 Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton re­port, there are hun­dreds of mil­lions of

smart-home de­vices in more than 40 mil­lion U.S. houses, and that num­ber is ex­pected to dou­ble by 2021. (Full dis­clo­sure: Ama­zon.com founder Jef­frey P. Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

Although some of Rath­bun’s clients re­main ap­pre­hen­sive about de­vices that can col­lect in­ti­mate data — think of how of­ten we hear news sto­ries about hack­ing, he noted — more of them seem to view home au­toma­tion pos­i­tively. Peo­ple who use these de­vices ac­cept what could be at risk, he added.

We don’t hes­i­tate to down­load nav­i­ga­tion apps on our smart­phones, and those give com­pa­nies con­stant ac­cess to our phys­i­cal lo­ca­tions. What makes these gad­gets any worse?

“For most of us, there’s a lit­tle bit of a trust fac­tor,” Rath­bun said. “If Ama­zon and Google and Ap­ple start giv­ing up our per­sonal data to whomever, to govern­ment agen­cies, to pri­vate in­dus­tries, then peo­ple will stop buy­ing their prod­ucts the sec­ond they find out.”

Un­til then, we pri­or­i­tize con­ve­nience.

In­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor Ian­tha Car­ley said that although she would “never have Alexa” be­cause

of a fear of be­ing over­heard, she has no prob­lem us­ing her phone to turn on her lights, an abil­ity she said is “not in­tru­sive.”

“That’s re­ally help­ful,” she con­tin­ued. “I think it’s great to be able to con­trol your lights, your HVAC, turn on your fire­place on a cold win­ter’s day right be­fore you get home.”

Rath­bun ad­mit­ted that he is now much more likely to al­ter the tem­per­a­ture at night be­cause he can sim­ply tap his phone screen a few times in­stead of tak­ing on the “ar­du­ous task” of walk­ing down a flight of stairs to the ther­mo­stat.


Car­ley and Rath­bun’s words re­flect re­search con­ducted by Eric Zeng, a grad­u­ate re­search as­sis­tant at the Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton. Along with col­lab­o­ra­tors Shri­rang Mare and Franziska Roes­ner, he in­ter­viewed 15 smart-home own­ers in depth about their pri­vacy con­cerns. Although par­tic­i­pants were aware of se­cu­rity prob­lems such as data col­lec­tion, sur­veil­lance and hack­ing, “most were not con­cerned about these is­sues on a day-to-day ba­sis,” the re­port found. No one men­tioned a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence that in­volved the com­pa­nies, hack­ers or the govern­ment, he said.

“I haven’t changed any of

my be­hav­ior in the house,” one par­tic­i­pant said, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. “If the FBI/CIA ac­tu­ally ever gets a record­ing of what’s go­ing into my Echo, they’ll prob­a­bly just think I’m a weirdo.”

The most com­mon pri­vacy con­cern? Other peo­ple in their own home — a com­plaint that sur­prised Zeng.

“You can play back record­ings of what peo­ple are say­ing to the Ama­zon Echo — you can hear what they’ve been ask­ing Alexa,” he said. He paused, then added, “I just trig­gered my own Alexa by say­ing that.”

Com­pa­nies such as Vivint, a leader in smart-home tech­nol­ogy, have taken note of our pri­or­i­ties. Vivint’s chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, Jeremy War­ren, said the com­pany fo­cuses on “be­ing the easy but­ton” for home­own­ers. It in­te­grates smart de­vices — door­bells, in­door and out­door cam­eras, locks, ther­mostats, and more — into a co­he­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, so that “you don’t have to use eight dif­fer­ent apps to con­trol things.”

This means if some­one shows up at your front door while you are at work, you can ac­cess the out­door cam­eras to see who they are. You can talk to them through speak­ers. You can even dis­arm the se­cu­rity sys­tem, un­lock the door for them and then switch to

the in­door cam­eras to watch them walk around your house. All this from an app on your phone.

Con­ve­nient? Yes. A lit­tle ter­ri­fy­ing? Per­haps. But the Big Broth­er­ness of it all doesn’t de­ter us from us­ing the de­vices. Ac­cord­ing to Rath­bun, it is still eas­ier for bad guys to do what they have al­ways done — break a win­dow, reach in and un­lock a door man­u­ally.


In fact, the one down­side to home­own­ers’ con­nect­ed­ness that Rath­bun and Chad Curry, who an­a­lyzes emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy for the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­al­tors, men­tioned has noth­ing to do with se­cu­rity: The two ex­pressed a need to brief prospec­tive buy­ers be­fore show­ing them around a house with cam­eras in­stalled. If you fall in love with a prop­erty and say, “I would pay any­thing for this house,” Curry tells his clients, you might end up hav­ing to. The sell­ers can hear ev­ery­thing.

“You’ve got to re­ally tem­per your emo­tion,” he said. “We’re in an age of to­tal in­for­ma­tion.”

And in this age, the av­er­age con­sumer doesn’t seem to care all that much about their data pri­vacy — at least not enough to do some­thing about it.

“When we talk to mem­bers, a room of 100 peo­ple, I’ll

ask them, ‘Who is con­cerned about data pri­vacy?’ All 100 hands go up,” Curry said. ” ‘Great, who here uses Face­book?’ All 100 hands stay up.”

We’ve heard a great deal more hor­ror sto­ries about Face­book data breaches than we have about hack­ers con­trol­ling de­vices in­stalled in liv­ing rooms. It could be pos­si­ble for knowl­edge­able peo­ple to hack smart de­vices — for­mer Forbes writer Kash­mir Hill was able to gather sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion from eight dif­fer­ent smart homes in 2013 — but com­pa­nies have in­creased se­cu­rity mea­sures to pre­vent out­siders from do­ing so.

War­ren in­sisted Vivint’s tech­nol­ogy is se­cure, and com­pany rep­re­sen­ta­tive Liz Tanner em­pha­sized the “en­crypted” na­ture of it all in an email: The sys­tems have en­crypted pass­words, the com­pany works on an en­crypted WiFi net­work, video footage is en­crypted from Vivint’s hub to the cloud and back again.

We’ve been run­ning to­ward high-tech con­ve­nience for years, War­ren said. He brought up Bill Gates’s Xanadu 2.0, an elab­o­rate, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar man­sion com­pleted in 1997 and known for its pricey smart-home tech­nol­ogy. But the con­cept goes back even far­ther: Ray Brad­bury de­scribed a pro­grammed smart home that per­forms

house­hold tasks in “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a short story pub­lished in 1950. The Jet­sons, which pre­miered in 1962, pre­dicted video calls and ro­bot as­sis­tants. Labs were demon­strat­ing smart homes in the 1970s, although the mar­ket for the de­vices has flour­ished within the past decade.

Rath­bun cred­ited much of this to “the prom­ise of cool,” and Curry added that it doesn’t hurt that the “Ap­ple fac­tor” has made de­vices sleeker. Think of Nest ther­mostats, for in­stance: “The de­sign of that ther­mo­stat is an ex­am­ple of what has made this mar­ket start mov­ing,” he said. “If you’re putting these in your home, they can’t be ugly.”

There is a sim­ple cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis: data pri­vacy vs. con­ve­nience. For now, Curry said, the lat­ter seems to be win­ning.

Ar­kan­sas Demo­crat-Gazette/NIKKI DAWES

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