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.

Don’t let your house get too smart

At the Home Depot today I was looking at light bulbs. LED lights are now as cheap as compact fluorescent lights were some years ago, which is great because they use minimal energy and last for decades. Most of them come with features. I bought a LED bulb for a lamp I was buying that changes color. Each time you turn it on the color changes subtly. There were many variations of dimmable LED lights; many variations on color changing LED lights and one bulb that for about $15 had a Wifi connection. It was that last one that gave me pause: an intelligent light bulb? Apparently yes and you can use it with various home security systems to program the times you want it on and off, and even control it with a smartphone app.

As a gadget guy and a retiree with plenty of time on his hands, I like the idea of turning my home into a smart house. I even like the idea of appliances like Amazon’s Alexa where you can say something like, “Alexa, what’s the temperature now?” and it will tell you. I tried this device when I was in Michigan last month visiting my aunt. She has Alexa but all she does with it is tell it to play music and to stop playing music. So 99% of the time it streams innocuous piano much. However, when I asked it, it told me the temperature outside easily enough.

I like the idea of being half a world away and having remote cameras show me that my cats are doing okay and something telling me that the furnace has died. Our furnace igniter did actually die while we were in Europe. Thankfully we had a house sitter who took charge of the situation, which of course happened inconveniently during a blizzard. She got it fixed. However, a smart house system could have let me know there was a problem and ping me with a text message or email.

I don’t seem to be in a hurry to get an Alexa or to make my home smarter. Frankly, the Alexa device scares me. Alexa and Google Home are apparently very good at listening surreptitiously. I suspect if my wife and I were arguing it would pick that up. Perhaps I would get targeted ads from for divorce lawyers afterward. For me, Alexa and similar appliances cross a line I don’t want crossed: letting a company or potentially anyone know more about me than I want to give out, which is already plenty. That’s why we bought a VPN. Given that I am rarely more than a dozen feet from a computing device, there is little impetus to make my life that much more convenient.

I am more concerned about hackers than I am worrying what Amazon or Google is learning about me when I install one of these smart devices. A thief could potentially remotely turn off a smart front porch light bulb. I notice that many doors now come with locks that can be unlocked remotely. This also concerns me. If I lose my key I might not be able to get into my house without a locksmith. But a house that can be unlocked electronically potentially allows anyone with the right skills and intent to let themselves in.

And that’s precisely what we are doing in principle by creating smart houses. We’re entrusting a wireless technology to be absolutely secure when it isn’t and likely won’t ever be secure. There are too many backdoors including the most vulnerable ones: our own smart devices, which keep the electronic keys to these devices. So to the extent I want my house to be smart, I mostly want it to inform me about events only.

So yes, please tell me if the furnace or AC isn’t working. Tell me if a window is not secured when it should be. It can phone the cops if it suspects a burglary has happened when I am not at home. I don’t want a device that silently listens to my yammer and keeps notes. I only want to be able to remotely control devices that add security, not take it away. I don’t want to be able to unlock my doors remotely, but I might want the ability to lock them remotely.

Internet security is something of an oxymoron. You can’t trust it completely. However you can trust hardware devices that can only be controlled manually. If all my smart appliances were wired to a central switchboard, I would trust that. For the same reason, I trust my circuit breaker box. I can fully understand it and since it’s a mechanical device it cannot be controlled remotely. Since data can be transferred over power lines, smart devices could use them for communications instead of Wifi networks. All would report over the power line to the smart device, perhaps in the basement that controlled the smart house. The device would have physical switches that you could turn on and off if you wanted to allow remote access to various smart devices. It would also need some hardware to ensure that data could not accidentally be sent to the power company.

We may get such a solution at some point. Right now though no one seems to be thinking this through adequately, which is why I will very selectively make my house smart, if I allow it at all.