Tech Giants Promote Dystopian ‘Smart Homes’

2016-06-14-smart-homes

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states. While we still have the right -at least on paper – to privacy in our homes, however, many Americans appear increasingly willing to trade it for convenience and technological gimmicks.

This week, Apple announced the launch of a new app called Home, which is essentially a centralized controller for its HomeKit system, a product that’s been around for two years and allows users to interconnect their various devices and “smart” home appliances that connect to the so-called Internet of Things (IoT).

Apple is not alone. The company is competing with Google and Amazon, which are promoting similar products. Long ago, in the mythic past of 2014, Ars Technica gushes, “it was tough to add devices to your smart home suite due to incompatibility and lack of security,” but we’ve since emerged from those dark ages – “the crazy early years of home automation” – and the technology is much more secure now.

Or maybe not. True, two years ago in the “crazy early years” reports were swirling of hundreds of hacked baby monitors and security cameras, but then again research released last September located similar vulnerabilities in numerous top camera brands, with researchers reportedly finding “serious security problems and design flaws in all of the cameras they tested.”

The fundamental lack of security that still characterizes the IoT was recently underscored by the launch of new tools, which I wrote about last week, aimed at scanning IoT networks for vulnerabilities. If such tools are necessary, then vulnerabilities obviously still exist. But it gets creepier.

Apple, which this week announced that it will feature built-in facial recognition in its new software for iPhones and iPads, has also reportedly looked at integrating the technology into its Home app. “The device would be ‘self aware’ and detect who is in the room using facial recognition technology,” according to CNET. “That would let the device automatically pull up a person’s preferences, such as the music and lighting they like, the sources said.”

So, for the low price of several hundred dollars (possibly thousands, depending on how many overpriced, silly-looking Apple devices you require), plus allowing a massive corporation to perform video surveillance on you and to literally track your face throughout your own home, you can have a machine make decisions for you about what kind of music you prefer.

Apple Home includes devices like iPhones and iPads, but it also includes connectivity for things like locks, cameras, garage doors and security systems. And potential threats to these mechanisms do not come from rogue criminal hackers alone.

It has come to light, for example, that numerous home surveillance camera models from a Chinese manufacturer that were sold in America were routinely being monitored by a third party Chinese company connected with the manufacturer.

In reporting on the Apple Home launch, Ars Technica notes that “Apple has partnered with ‘every major maker of home accessories,’ as well as home builders in the US and China. The home builders bit was particularly interesting, as it means Apple is working to integrate Home into the physical structure of buildings, so ‘you can move in and just start controlling your home.'”

But even setting aside security concerns, the supposed convenience of controlling everything electronic in your home from a single device may not live up to the hype.

In an April article titled “Nest’s Hub Shutdown Proves You’re Crazy to Buy Into the Internet of Things,” Klint Finley of Wired writes about the demise of Revolv, a smart home startup that was acquired in 2014 by Nest, a home automation venture that is owned by the same people who own Google.

Now, less than two years after that acquisition, Revolv is no longer usable as of last month, as Nest has opted to discontinue web support for the Revolv system and instead to promote something called “Works with Nest.”

Smart homes connected to the Internet of Things may indeed be the way of the future. Connecting our homes to these systems would certainly be another step in the direction that prevailing trends have been leading us for some time now – namely in the direction of total surveillance, increasing reliance on an ever-increasing number of increasingly unnecessary machines, and those machines becoming obsolete at a faster rate, with increasingly consequential impacts resulting from that obsolescence (i.e. having to rewire your home because Apple or Google decide they want to change their branding.) Thankfully the future isn’t here quite yet.

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