Science fiction literature is full of situations where electronic devices become self aware and begin making their own decisions. Some of us, I suppose, have come to think that it’s ultimately inevitable.
So it was not too surprising to read last week’s article by Tim Butler, my friend and OFB’s editor. The various “smart” devices in his house, remarkable novelties when they were new, aren’t as cute now as once they were. The story in some ways paralleled the arrival of a new child: all oohs and aahs at first, but then there came a time when that had worn off. In due course the gadgets (and children) get older and become obstinate and contrarian. The first time a child is asked to take out the trash, the request is welcomed as an assignment of responsibility. But by age 14 or so the request becomes less likely to bring the desired result.
There comes a time in a child’s life, not often remarked upon but worthy of notice, when he or she (and yes, those are the only two choices possible) notices that the advantages of cuteness are no longer available. At or around five or six years of age, the offspring discovers that the attention of older people can no longer be assumed, that the silly things that once sparked laughter and adoration now produce grumbles of annoyance. There are, I’ve observed, two reactions. The first is a concerted, sometimes outlandish attempt to get attention, to be cute and seen as cute. The second is a kind of sullenness when the first no longer works.
Does a corresponding phenomenon take place with our “smart” devices? I wonder.
Tim’s column came just as Insteon, a leading “smart home” company, suddenly turned un-smart. No longer reaping the benefits of novelty and cuteness, it became sullen and silent — and broke, in both the financial and functional senses. Therein lies a lesson.
In describing the company, I can’t improve on the first paragraph of its Wikipedia article: “Insteon was a proprietary home automation (domotics) system that enabled light switches, lights, thermostats, leak sensors, remote controls, motion sensors, and other electrically powered devices to interoperate through power lines, radio frequency (RF) communications, or both. It employed a dual-mesh networking topology in which all devices are peers and each device independently transmits, receives, confirm and repeats messages. Like other home automation systems, it had been associated with the Internet of things.”
Nor, unfortunately for its customers, can I improve on the second paragraph: “In mid-April of 2022, the company appeared to have abruptly shut down.”
The company and its associated marketing wing, SmartLabs, claimed that if you used a “smart” phone you already knew how to operate your exciting new Insteon “smart” home. You could control everything electrical in your house, through a device connected to the company; your command not going directly from your phone to the light fixture or air conditioner but to the company, which then issued the command to the appliance via an Insteon server in your home, with the communication taking place over the internet.
If the internet went down, you were out of luck. If the company — whose home server handled the entire house — went down, you were out of luck.
Without as much as a by-your-leave, Insteon turned off all those servers, beginning April 16. It took them a week to explain that they have no money and have shut down. Insteon customers — I have no idea how many there were — were now out of luck. They had trusted the company, but their trust appears to have been misplaced.
That’s a big problem with “smart” technology. You always have to deal with a third party, a company, that has access to a big chunk of your life but that asks, in the fine print, for you to trust it. While they’d like you to think that and act as if “smart” devices are merely super-powerful remote controls, that’s not how it works. When any “smart” gadget user tells the controller to do something, that controller — “smart” speaker, cellular telephone, weird Apple gadget — contacts the company, which decides whether or not to carry out the request. The demand is usually but not always fulfilled. (In the case of Insteon, commands are now never carried out, in this respect reducing the power of your “smart” phone to less than the power of a bar of soap, the latter still being useful as soap.)
There’s more, and it’s worse. In order to listen for your commands, “smart” devices have to be on all the time, always listening, every sound transmitted to a giant corporation far away. Those corporations also happen to be in the business of selling your personal information to anyone who will pay for it. They want you to trust them, yet they secretly spy on all of your other online activity. Why wouldn’t they make use of a full-time audio feed of your entire life?
The companies say they don’t do that. “Trust us,” they demand.
Which brings us to the murder case against James Bates.
Bates had been drinking and watching television with a friend. The friend was later found, face-down and dead, in Bates’s hot tub, and Bates was charged with first-degree murder.
There was an Amazon Echo device nearby. It had been playing music on the night in question. The prosecution, perhaps hoping to hear, “Alexa, how long does it take to drown someone?”, sought Amazon’s recordings from the device. After some legal wrangling, Amazon turned them over.
This is significant because the company thereby admitted that it had the recordings. (The case, by the way, was ultimately dropped, though it was not made public whether the recordings figured into that decision. By the way, the police also gathered evidence from a “smart” water meter!)
So, by using a “smart” speaker, you are granting a huge tech company permission to record everything that speaker hears and retain it for as long as it wants. It’s cataloged, so it’s accessible. The Bates case burst the dam on lawyers demanding those recordings for use in civil, criminal, and — of course — divorce cases.
Worrisome, isn’t it? What if the “smart” speaker had a camera built in? You might wonder what the possible rationale would be for this, what good it could possibly do you, and your doubts would be well founded. Yet they exist and are marketed, including devices designed for placement in the bedroom.
“Smart” devices can be turned to non-corporate, non-lawyer mischief as well. An angry spouse or lover, or would-be spouse or lover, or just a garden-variety jerk can, without too much effort, turn your “smart” thermostat up or down, make the lights flash off and on, lock (or unlock) your “smart” locks, and more. It has become a big issue, especially in the field of domestic abuse.
All of which strikes me as a pretty high price to pay to avoid having to get up to turn on the table lamp or set the thermostat.
What’s more, there’s no reason why if we must have remote controls for everything the system can’t be entirely self-contained, without any recordings or third-party “assistance.” We’ve had television remote controls for more than half a century (though the first ones were pretty awful, making a tinny, mechanical click and entirely unpleasant to use). There has traditionally been a direct line of communication between the remote and the TV, as there is between my window-installed air conditioner and the tiny remote that came with it — no “free” app for my phone, no setting up the remote for the internet. But now most remotes include “voice control,” which, again, sends information to Google or Amazon or Heaven knows where else, who will do what you ask, probably, but who might also make “suggestions,” which is a way of calibrating how accurate their appraisal of you is. Seen in that light, it’s terrifying. And now, saints preserve us, there is Google television. (Oh, for Google to meet the fate that has befallen Insteon!)
When I leave the living room for the bedroom, there is no reason why Amazon or Google should know about it. Yet if you use current “smart” devices, the company does know, and if you don’t think they are finding ways to monetize that information you’re a cute summer child. Turning on a light needn’t require internet intervention, nor should it involve hollering at the thing!
The systems involved in turning on a light or setting a thermostat are well known and simple. The systems involved in telling your light to turn on or off, or telling your thermostat the temperature you’d like, or telling the television what you’d like to watch are complicated, unsecure, and downright dangerous.
A real “smart” home is one that is occupied by a smart person. There is nothing smart about turning your life over to companies and other persons that are governed by rules as vague and sometimes malicious as those that govern the actions of angry children.