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Smart Homes: Our Next Digital Privacy Nightmare

(John Paul Titlow)  The hyper-connected smart home of the future promises to change the way we live. More efficient energy usage, Internet-connected appliances that communicate with one another and cloud-enhanced home security are just some of the conveniences we’ll enjoy.

It’s going to be amazing. It will also open up major questions about privacy.

We’re already catching a glimpse of our futuristic living quarters with products like the Nest, the WiFi-connected smart thermostat with an Apple-esque sleekness. Each year, the Consumer Electronics Show introduces us a handful of new connected appliances and household items, each one bringing us closer to the so-called “Internet of things” we keep hearing about. Everybody from giant Internet service providers to scrappy startups are getting in on the smart home game, building products that will make our homes more efficient, secure and livable. Before long, Jetsons-style robots will be feeding our pets.

If you think digital privacy is a contentious issue now, just wait.

Government Requests For Personal Data On The Rise

Consider this: In the last few years, Internet service providers and mobile carriers have seen a huge spike in government requests for data about customers. AT&T alone receives 700 such requests per day, according to The New York Times. They’re not alone. Carriers and ISPs collectively receive thousands of requests for customer data per day from local law enforcement, federal agencies and courts. In many cases, they’re willingly handing it over. In very few are they actually telling us about it.

This uptick in government data requests corresponds with the rapid rise of smartphones and other connected gadgets among the general population. Naturally, as these devices proliferate, they are inevitably being used by some consumers to do bad things. But as we’ve seen, the technology has evolved more quickly than our society’s rules about privacy — such as those enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — can possibly be crafted.

Why does it matter what companies like Verizon and Comcast do with their customers’ information? Because those very same firms are now selling smart home products that will allow them to collect more data about our lives than ever before.

“The information that’s available in a smart home can be really extraordinarily detailed,” says Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Analyzing a household’s power usage alone can reveal details about a family’s schedule and habits and may even one day hint at what different appliances might be used for.

“The technology is such that it won’t be too long before you can look at somebody’s power usage be able to know when they opened the fridge or how much food was in it,” says Jeschke. “And that’s without a wired fridge. That’s just the power.”

Your Smart Home Will Be a Trove Of Data

Every time we connect another one of our household appliances to the Internet, we’re going to be generating another set of data about our lives and storing it some company’s servers. That data can be incredibly useful to us, but it creates yet another digital trail of personal details that could become vulnerable to court subpoenas, law enforcement requests (with or without a warrant) or hackers.

Okay, so maybe you don’t care if somebody else knows what’s in your WiFi-connected refrigerator. But what about your bedroom?

Comcast is one of the many companies making a move toward the connected home. The cable giant offers a product called XFinity Home that offers the latest in home automation technology: smart energy management, remote-controlled door locks and in-home video surveillance. All of these features and more are conveniently accessible from smartphones, tablets and a Web-based portal.

Having remote, mobile access to our homes in this way presents enormous advantages. But it also raises a red flag when it comes to privacy, says Abdullahi Arabo, a research fellow at the University of Oxford who wrote a paper examining the privacy implications of smart home technology.

“In reality, our smart devices hold more information than our brains,” says Arabo. “This makes them a good target for hackers, malware and unauthorized users.”

Of course, this has been the case for quite some time, but in the age of the smart home, a stolen or hacked phone isn’t just a repository of personal information: it’s a remote control for your entire house. If you’ve signed up for the remote surveillance service, it also contains live video feeds from every room in the house.

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