Your personal data space
Your house is leaky. It’s not an issue about what comes in, but about what goes out.
When it comes to privacy, I’m something of an optimist. I am entirely aware of the trade-offs that I make to access the variety of social and cloud-based services that I use. For the most part, I accept that they will use my data and sell it to advertisers and those interested in my habits. In return, the service doesn’t cost me any cash — at least not directly.
For personal services like Facebook and Twitter, it’s fine for us each to make this judgement call for ourselves. But when it comes to home automation and security services, we need to be a little more considered. Because most of us share our homes. Not everyone in them will share our relaxed attitude to trading our personal data. Some of them may not be old enough to make an informed decision.
I’ve become more and more aware of this as I have progressed through the latest iteration of my long-running home automation project.
A few years ago I got fed up with products from different manufacturers not talking to each other and started to build my own system. It worked, in a limited fashion, giving me data on energy consumption, turning a few lights on and off automatically, and monitoring just how absurdly damp parts of my house were.
But in truth, it was a kludge. My coding skills weren’t up to building a really solid core platform. And it was reliant on some hacked-together integrations with commercial products: HomeEasy sockets and switches, AlertMe energy monitoring. After a while, some of the commercial products I was getting sent to test started to creep in and replace my home brew kit. Fibaro’s excellent HomeCenter 2 became the heart of my system with a variety of Z-wave connected components around and about, plus a few odd extras bolted on such as bulbs from Belkin’s WeMo range, Somfy’s security system, and my Nest thermostat.
Then at the start of this year, I started getting sent lots of connected cameras. Netgear’s Arlo, the Blink range, and Panasonic’s Home Control system. In my excitement, I started thinking about where I’d mount them before I thought about whether I wanted cameras around the house.
Then it occurred to me: I’m very conscious of how much information I share about my children. Do I really want to risk storing endless hours of video of them in the cloud?
The answer, of course, was no. The cameras are back in their box. But I didn’t stop there. I started thinking: what’s happening to my energy consumption data? What’s happening to my heating data — and presence data that the thermostat also collects? What about the lights?
Individually, each one of these things may tell the world little about me and my family. But there might be 20 different cloud-connected devices in my house — maybe more. I’ve not even mentioned Alexa or the streaming media devices yet. Combined, how much of a picture can they build up of me? And more importantly, what do they already know about my family.
The result is that I have returned to the DIY route with renewed zeal, installing the excellent Home Assistant at the heart of my system and building my own switches and sensors using the incredible NodeMCU.
I realise this is the sort of geeky speak that will switch off the strategists reading this. But this stuff is important.
I met with some of the chaps from global social media superstars Social Chain last week. They showed in a presentation a storyboard of personal information being collected from a private WhatsApp chat and being used to drive targeted advertising on Facebook. At every opportunity our personal information is being captured, and it is being analysed and processed with increasing efficiency and accuracy. Data like your home temperature or energy consumption may not feel like it has a huge value to third parties. But for somebody, somewhere, it is gold.
I have no problem sharing this data for an appropriate return. But I realise now, when it comes to data about my home, this isn’t just my decision to make.