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  • Kat Allen

The Internet of Things: How do we get interconnection without Big Brother?

I do not live in a Smart Home. It's a rental built in the mid-90s and has never been renovated, so it has none of the charm of a turn-of-the-century Colonial and none of the technology of a post-millennium renovation. This is OK.

But sometimes, I wish that my house was just a little bit smarter.

A Current Example

My sons share a room. One of them is *very* afraid of the dark. He won't walk through an unlit room, even if the path to the next room is lit by the open doors on both sides. So of course their room is the one where the overhead lights started just not coming on intermittently a few weeks ago.

I rent currently, but my landlord is overseas, so scheduling maintenance is on me: I called an electrician and left a message.

It's been a busy week at school, so I blew off trying again when we got the light to turn on a few times. But now, of course, it won't turn on at all.

I'm an engineer, I have a dining room table covered in motors and batteries --I could fix it myself, right?

Yeah, no. I love a good DIY, but DIY electrical is a bad idea now ( 120V at 10A bites hard, people!) and a bad idea for the future (code violations cause fires!). Better to have a professional come in than to be That Guy (Gal) who left the next resident of this house a home maintenance disaster to clean up.

Wouldn't it be nice if the broken switch had just called someone for me to get itself repaired?

Yes, yes it would. So why aren't all my wall switches Smart Switches, which could call an electrician to come fix them for me at the first sign of trouble?

  1. Current smart switches don't (apparently) have this capability, which is not surprising -- the electricians themselves probably don't take appointment requests from Alexa, Google Home, or Siri.

  2. Control. Right now, when it's working, I can be 100% sure that nobody is messing with the lights except the 5 year old turning them on and off to annoy his brother. The most that someone can mess with lights in a room they aren't in is if there's a second switch down the hall. In contrast, a house with smart switches can be controlled from anywhere -- my daughter can control the light switches in her room at her dad's house, open the garage door, or change the heat settings from her iPad 5 miles away at my house. If there are security holes anywhere along the authentication path, it might be possible for anyone to control the lights and garage door and heating in a SmartHouse. Some light switch manufacturers user geofencing to prevent anyone who is not nearby to control the lights, but not all of them, and that has its own potential flaws.

Wait, what's geofencing?

Geofencing means using GPS and wifi location data to limit the geographical area in which something can happen. I can use geofencing to tell me when someone in my family leaves work for home, for example, or an advertiser can use geofencing to pop up ads for businesses within walking distance of where I am.

3. Smart Lights are expensive. Smart switches vary from $65 - $180, per light switch. In contrast, I can get a regular double-barrel light switch for $8 at a big-box home store, and a really nice looking one for $20. All those $100 switches add up quickly!

4. Interoperability - or the lack therof. Lots of smart switches work with the current big players in voice-operated computing and digital assistants (Google, Amazon, Apple), but almost none of them work with each other. Once you've picked a brand, you're stuck with it, even if they go out of business or just aren't making the really cool thing you'd like to have incorporated into your system.

5. Privacy - in addition to being locked into that company's products, that company has access to a lot of information about you that is surprisingly personal. Do you want your light switch company to know that you always turn the light on at 4 AM? What could they guess about your life from that information? What kind of weird marketing will you get if the light switch company sells that information to a Big Data marketing firm? I don't know, but I don't think I like it.

And that is without any of the direct spying concerns from having cameras and microphones in your smart devices!

So how do we fix it? How do we get Smart Homes without being locked into expensive proprietary platforms where megacorporations spy on your every move and send the information to advertisers?

A Recipe For Smart Freedom

  1. Privacy legislation. Big companies have no incentive not to collect your data and sell it to the highest bidder, so this is a place where Government of The People needs to act on behalf of The People.

  2. Standards for interoperability. If there's no standard for making something, everyone makes their own. If there is a standard, everyone gets input into the process and then has to live with the results. This will help with controls, too - if all the smart people think about the right way to do something, knowing that they have to get it right the first time (because changing industry or government standards is much, much harder than shipping a patch to your buggy code) the resulting system will be much more reliable and robust.

Once we have both of these, acceptance will be higher, so the electricians will be incentivized to connect in to the (standardized, open-source) Smart Home automatic notification system, and my light switch will schedule it's own repair.

So, that's it! Industry standards and privacy legislation ... how hard could that be?

I'd better make some phone calls.

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