Give me a (reasonably) dumb home

As a partially retired software engineer, I’m all about the power of technology. I’m part of a group that’s succeeding in getting our city to create a municipal internet, for example. I want affordable fiber to the home! I want gigabit per second (or higher) upload and download speeds. At the same time, I want to keep my home as dumb as possible.

Admittedly, it’s an uphill struggle. For example, I’m guilty of having a Google account and using Facebook. Both companies are no doubt collecting reams of data about me. While I really loath Facebook, it’s hard to give up. I’ll lose contact with lots of people, mostly people I used to know. Yeah, they could email me, but they won’t. Since we moved in 2015 it’s a good bet I won’t see most of them in the flesh again anyway. Now in my sixties, a lot of them have moved elsewhere too, making the odds of a face-to-face meeting even less likely. To some extent these people have been supplanted by even more people in my new neighborhood. In general I don’t seek them out as friends. I let them “friend” me and sometimes I just decline the opportunity. What I can do in Facebook is refuse to click on any targeted ad. That’s my policy.

Our daughter got a email account. I’m considering it too. The company is based in Switzerland and stores nothing in the cloud. Even if they wanted to read your email, they can’t. So as a secure email solution, it’s likely the best out there, though a bit pricey, at least if you want to keep more than 500mb of email online.

But most of us give away our privacy, often inadvertently. A few years ago I visited an aunt to discover she had an Alexa smart speaker. It was very good at giving her music to listen to and weather reports. What it’s not good at is not listening to you. Unless you change some very obscure settings or explicitly turn its microphone off (which defeats the purpose of owning one), it’s recording anything its microphone can pick up. It’s supposedly all about making these personal digital assistants (PDAs) more useful to you, but it’s much more about Amazon trying to monetize what it knows about you. Both Google and Apple are doing the same thing with their PDAs.

Alas, if it were just PDAs you had to worry about. This stuff is everywhere, and pervasive. For example, your TV is likely “smart”. I bought a new one last year (Samsung) and it too is watching and listening. These features can supposedly be disabled, and Consumer Reports indicates how to do it. I tried to disable these features of my Samsung TV and I keep getting an error code when I try.

For a few years now I’ve been searching the web using DuckDuckGo. I actually think it’s a better search engine than Google, returning more relevant results. But it’s also built around privacy, so when I use it Google (supposedly) remains ignorant of my search queries. But there are times I can’t, or can’t easily not use Google search. For example, my tablet computer runs the Android operating system, so I can’t make a voice search without using Google’s search engine. I don’t think DuckDuckGo has a similar app, but it likely hasn’t perfected the voice recognition business, so even if one existed I’d probably have to type in search queries. And really, who knows what goes on inside the Android operating system anyhow. Google may be listening anyhow.

These days pretty much any device you install is suspect, and the company making it is likely making money monetizing what it knows about you. Many have invasive implications, not just for your privacy, but for society at large. Google bought Ring, which makes smart doorbells. These smart devices can help identify porch thieves stealing your packages, but they are also being networked with similar devices other neighbors have and potentially used by police. Again, it’s possible to disable these features, but they are on by default.

For Ford, selling cars is now ancillary. A car is just a vehicle for monetizing information about you, or at least that’s its long term goal. Ford hopes to make $20B a year from this by 2030. It’s recording where you are going, when, where you stopped and no doubt is feeding that information to other systems willing to pay for it. Most cars these days integrate with voice assistants like Alexa too. Most of these smart devices you bought are doing similar things, so it’s likely the real profit from selling you a device comes long afterward when over years it sells or provides the information to third parties.

It’s becoming impossible not to buy smart devices so in some sense you can’t escape these invasions of your privacy. It’s becoming impossible to live without a cell phone, and dumb cell phones are pretty hard to get. The same is true with cars and most appliances. The trend is only going to get worse. The only real solution is legislation. Maximum privacy should be the default, not the other way around. It should be hard to make these devices share data.

I am trying to figure out where my boundary is. I feel I’ve strayed too far off the privacy path. Even if I can get back on it, companies already have reams of data about me, and it’s equally burdensome to get them to remove their data about you, if it’s possible at all. There’s really no way to know for sure if they’ve done this.

Aside from privacy, all this technology is contributing greatly to polarizing our society. In addition to targeted ads and predictive behavior, it’s also putting us in information silos, making it hard for us to hear perspectives outside our bubbles. Keeping us in our bubbles seems to be much more profitable to corporations, and much more useful for politicians. These behaviors simply make us more predictable to them, and the more predictable we are, the easier we are to influence and control. Much of this is being championed by Republicans, supposedly the “pro-freedom” political party.

So I’ll do my best to maintain my privacy, but it will be an uphill struggle. As I integrate more technology into my life, I now weigh the privacy implications carefully. For example, I’m considering a home security system, but I need devices that won’t place everything in a public cloud. They are getting hard to find.

Part of the solutions is staying no-tech if you can. Rather than tell Google’s assistant to create an appointment on a certain date and time, enter it into a calendar on your refrigerator, if that works, or at least use third-party calendar software and type it in yourself. Rather than tell Alexa to add something to your shopping list, make your shopping list out with pencil and paper. This still works for us.

Simply be conscious of what you are doing when you make these choices. In many cases, what you are giving up greatly exceeds the value of whatever services they provide.