What if individuals had the ability to command the sensors around them to stop seeing them as they moved throughout their homes or along city streets? Imagine a world that was full of smart devices and infrastructure and also enabled you to put on the equivalent of a digital invisibility cloak. Would that make you feel more comfortable? How might it work?
As we add more sensing capabilities to our public and private spaces, the idea resonates. While there are plenty of times when I don’t mind my home or the people in it using sensors to see where I am or guess what I’m doing, there are other times (such as when I’m shopping for holiday presents or planning a surprise party) when I wish they’d turn off. Mark Rolston, chief creative officer at Argodesign, suggests we deal with this problem by having a way to tell sensors to “be blind to us.”
Rolston spoke at my Level Up the Smart Home event, where he shared his thoughts on how data is gathered and what it might let people infer about us when discussing the need for a blinding capability. He used heart rate data as an example. Any device that can track heart rate information can be used to monitor health, but it can also be used to infer how someone is feeling. And while it might be great to have a device tracking your heart rate if you are in danger of atrial fibrillation, it has the potential to gather far more information than that.
But as a user, having the capability to “blind” a sensor to the data during certain times or for certain use cases might make you more comfortable with the device. And the time to start thinking about this is now. Look no further than the Amazon Halo wristband, which is both a fitness tracker and will locally analyze your voice to determine your emotional state. Currently, you need to opt-in to the emotional readings, but the reality of using data analysis on a device to understand your emotional state is already here.
Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), liked the idea, but pointed out that the act of blinding a sensor might in itself become a signal that could cause problems for people. She noted as well how companies that are building connected devices are also building surveillance networks that can trap women, men, and children in unsafe situations and exacerbate abuse.
And while tech companies might like to believe that any connected device designed for the home will be purchased and installed in a “safe” place for people, homes are not always safe. She’d like tech companies to work with her organization to think about how to design for that reality.
Smart home tech will be abused by abusers, but making it more difficult to use in that capacity will help. That said, we all have a stake in the idea of turning off sensors for a bit. Obviously, you wouldn’t be able to blind surveillance cameras outside of a bank before you rob the place, but in the home, if I’ve had a bad day I might want to blind my sensors to prevent them from seeing me sob for four hours while downing a pint of ice cream.
The question is, how? To avoid the fatigue of having to think about what every device is capable of and individually setting up a blinding mechanism on each device I bring home, I’d like to see something become standard. Maybe the Project Connected Home over IP group could add this to its efforts. And to those who would assert they’d simply go blind all the time, I would argue that, while most of us might start out thinking we’d rather not share our data, the benefits of sharing it would quickly become clear.
A good example is sharing location data from your phone. If you don’t share that data, real-time traffic services or navigation won’t be available to you. That’s why most people turn it on in their map apps. Sharing location can also enable ride-sharing or cheaper insurance rates. But maybe you don’t want to share location with every service. Both Apple and Google currently use notifications and permissions to make the decision of whether or not to share that data easier. Something like that as part of the smart home makes a lot of sense.