Future Tense

The Connected Home May Become the Collected Home  

Could visiting your smart-home-dwelling neighbor for a cup of coffee mean giving up some personal data?

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The era of the smart home is upon us: Sensor-based devices throughout your living quarters will learn your behaviors to increase convenience and optimize savings. What most people haven’t considered, however, is how the personal data reflecting our intimate actions at home will merge with existing advertising data to provide “an inside track” on our lives. Someday soon our Kinect may register our facial expression during food commercials and send the data directly to our smart fridge and health insurance carriers.  Or blood pressure data during sex will be analyzed to spur Cialis sales.  Soon concierge robots centralizing multiple duties will be able to speak to us directly, making the old saw, “If these walls could talk” into a reality.  And the data mining and profiling practices already in place guarantee that those walls will also be listening.

The smart-home company Nest recently opened its API to let developers create devices that can join their learning thermostat to further develop its idea of “The Conscious Home.” Recently acquired by Google, Nest has created a developer program that seeks to move beyond companies like SmartThings or competitors whose focus is on “simply linking and remote controlling the devices in your home.” As Nest notes on its site—“Anyone can do that. This is about working behind the scenes to anticipate people’s needs and make their lives easier.” Nest’s forward-looking developer program could allow the company to control a sort of iTunes for the Internet of Things—the hub for multiple consumer-friendly services of the future.

However, when the developer program was announced a few weeks ago, a number of media outlets expressed concern that data from devices would be shared with Google. Nest co-founder Matt Rogers dismissed the idea, reporting that users would have to opt in to share data with Google. He affirmed that point when I spoke to him recently: “Developers have to say what they’re using data for and they have to authorize that with the user. We want to explicitly get permission from the user and be transparent about its use, allowing them to opt out at any time, keeping the user in control of their home and their information.” Furthermore, he said, “We don’t treat Google differently than any other third party.”

But soon after the acquisition, Nest’s founder and CEO, Tony Fadell, wrote on the company’s website, “Google will help us fully realize our vision of the conscious home and allow us to change the world faster than we ever could if we continued to go it alone.” While I believe Rogers when he says that Nest will enforce its privacy policies, the fact that some Nesters can opt in to sharing data with Google muddies privacy waters.

Here’s one reason: Google noted in August of 2013 that those who email Gmail users have “no legitimate expectation of privacy,” eroding the rights of senders who don’t use the service by ignoring the fact they haven’t signed Google’s terms and conditions.

Let’s extrapolate that. This precedent would seemingly apply to people entering the home of someone who uses Nest and has opted to share his data with Google. Soon, you may want to think about asking your friend about privacy policies before crossing the threshold into his house.

Say a woman enters a friend’s house while she happens to be wearing a sensor—maybe for working out—that betrays a thermal or other biometric signature correlating to pregnancy. Like the famed story of Target discovering and revealing a woman was pregnant before her father, a smart house in this situation might in the future speak or tweet congratulatory remarks, including, “It’s a girl!” Or in the aftermath of a rowdy party, a teen’s Mercedes might not unlock after recognizing her blood alcohol content. Visiting your neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar could lead to a lecture about diabetes.

Whatever the scenarios, Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information could move into our homes whether we opt in or not. Google makes the majority of its money from advertising, so the Connected Home will become the Collected Home, framing our conscious decisions within a subconscious algorithmic framework biased by what and why we buy. In response to my follow-up question about Google’s precedent of mining data from nonusers, Nest did confirm it collects only information regarding services users have paid for (controlling temperatures, smoke warnings, etc.), does not collect information from house guests, and has privacy and customer data policies that are completely separate from Google. But this doesn’t mitigate the fact Google may still attempt to access data from house guests in the near future (from any smart home manufacturer) in the same way it currently has access to email from non-Gmail users or in the way it admitted to harvesting data from people’s unencrypted Wi-Fi networks with its Street View program.

While Nest products, to the best of my knowledge, don’t currently track biometric or somatic data, the Developer Program will likely provide these types of wearable and Quantified Self options relatively soon.  Perhaps Neumitra’s bandu device, which measures sweat as a proxy for stress, will work with Nest to increase your air conditioning to help calm you down. Or audio sensors in your walls outfitted with the emotion-sensing Moodies app could turn music on in a room correlated in real-time based on how you feel.  And I’m sure the majority of them will provide convenience and consumer benefits as Nest’s products have already done in areas of safety and electricity.

But they’re also going to speed the rise of a society in which our intentions and behaviors serve largely as the spark to power predictive algorithms. While “working behind the scenes to anticipate people’s needs” today means ingenious thermostats saving us money and providing convenience, with Google in the mix it’s our wants the algorithms are going to target. Our homes may be conscious, but we won’t know about what.