Put on your tin foil hats everyone, we’re going to talk about privacy, big corporations mining your data and going off the grid!
Think of all of the online services that are out there that you use…Facebook, GMail, Houzz, Google Search, Maps, etc. These are all free services. But the companies that provide these services spend billions building and maintaining them. So how do they make money? They sell your data and use it for advertising. This data is worth a lot of money, which is why many of the aforementioned corporations are some of the richest in the world. It’s been said that “data is the new oil.”
Depending on your opinion, trading your valuable data for a service can be a good trade. For this trade you get a ton of utility with no monetary cost to you. To make this trade you have to trust people with your data, just as you trust a bank to hold your money.
In the past couple of years, these corporations have betrayed that trust several times at a large scale. Facebook has been mired in privacy scandals and Google had to shut down their entire social network because of a potential data breach (I know what you’re thinking – I didn’t use Google+ either).
So how does this affect the kitchen and the home design industry? In a big way, actually. At this point, I’m sure you’ve at least heard of or seen Amazon Alexa and Google Home. These are “smart speakers” that you can place in your home. You can talk to them and ask them to play music, read the news, make phone calls, order products and set cooking timers. There are a few of these models that have screens on them. This makes them fantastic cooking companions in the kitchen. We have a few of these and we love them in our kitchen.
You can also pair them with smart lights, locks, appliances, thermostats, air conditioners, blinds and the list goes on. This allows anyone to set up and build a futuristic smart home of their own.
At the seminars I teach on this very topic for this very magazine, I talk a lot about the benefits of these setups. They can make you feel like you live in the future, they can let someone who is aging in place be independent for longer and they can help your kids with their homework.
But what about privacy? I get asked this a lot, and it’s a great question. So you ask that speaker, “Hey Alexa, can you lock my doors?” and your doors lock. Super cool, right? But how does it work? Well, Amazon is listening all the time for the “Wake Word.” In most cases, it’s “Alexa.” After it hears that, it figures out what you want to do – in this case, “lock the doors.”
That voice recording is sent to Amazon and stored there for a period of time. Then a command is sent from Amazon to the maker of the smart lock. If the command is accepted, your lock does what it’s supposed to do.
If you’re following along, your voice recording and commands are sent, in seconds, to two large corporations that you must trust for this all to work. This data isn’t just used for your door locks; at Amazon, the recordings are listened to by teams of people to help train their voice recognition better, and in some cases they’re used to learn about your potential buying habits so that companies can target you with advertisements.
As our homes get more and more reliant on technology, they’re a veritable goldmine for data for these companies. Why do you think they make these smart speakers so cheap?
Do I think this is bad? I believe it’s too early to tell. My advice is that you should stay informed, and ask what these companies are doing with your data. Keep in mind you’re providing them with a valuable resource.
As a designer who could potentially be specifying these products, it’s important for you to be able to answer questions about privacy that your clients may ask. I can’t tell you what the right choice is, but what I can tell you is the right choice is always an informed one.
There are ways of building an “off-grid” smart home. They have their advantages, and their drawbacks. I’m currently experimenting with building an off-grid smart home and I’ll report my findings in a future column. ▪