My place is kind of crazy when it comes to home automation. It’s by no means too much, but I can control all of my lighting from my iPhone or just by asking Siri to set certain rooms to a particular lighting scheme (I have one named after my cat). I can pipe in music to any room from my iTunes library. Friends can hop on my main system to play their music. I can check in on my cat on my iPhone with a live Nest cam whenever I’m traveling. I can change the temperature of any room via Wi-Fi. I can yell at my PlayStation from across the living room to pause a Netflix show.
It’s gotten to the point that when I walk into hotel rooms or friends’ homes, I pause before touching things like switches rather than just issuing verbal commands at Siri, Alexa, or Cortana.
With all of this awesomeness, though, comes a caveat: My house is listening to me, watching me and monitoring my activities. I’m not a privacy alarmist by any means, but every so often, as I’m sitting on my couch writing or (as mentioned) binging on Netflix shows, I gaze over at the Nest cam, lock eyes with its little green light, and I’m reminded of the fact that I’m being watched, listened to and recorded.
Of course, there isn’t anyone actively sitting on the other end of that connection literally watching me. At least I hope not, and if that were the case, companies like Google and Microsoft would have massive privacy lawsuits on their hands.
I’m also reminded that if someone were to gain access to my accounts, as unlikely as that is, they could watch me, listen to me, turn on my lights, turn on my TV and even lock me out of access to my own home.
Am I scared? No. Paranoid? Not even close. I’ve got enough things to worry about.
But yes, it’s true: My Playstation 4 is always listening to me and watching me via Eye. My Xbox One is listening to me via Kinect. My Amazon Echo is listening and waiting for me to say, “I need more toilet paper.” My iPhone is waiting for me to say, “Hey Siri!” My Nest Cam is watching me and warning me when it hears something or sees something. My Nest Thermostat is monitoring my energy usage and essentially knows when I’m home, when I’m away and what my daily schedule is like.
So I accept that the house is listening. And watching. And recording everything I’m doing.
Maybe it’s because I live in New York City where privacy is already something I think I get when I block out the world on the C train with my earbuds. It’s most likely because if someone were to gain access to, say, my Nest camera, the payoff would be anything but gratifying. They’d see me and my cat playing “Bite the Arm” or, at least most of the time, absolutely nothing.
Not that I’m making light of privacy issues. I’ve had my credit card info swiped, I’ve had my ATM card skimmed, I’ve had every prince from Nigeria make a run at my bank account number. But none of these things happened from using connected devices, internet of things, home automation, voice activation and all that. In fact, most of them happened when I left my home and entered the big, bad, scary real world.
I am quite aware of what someone could do with my connected devices. As mentioned above, they could find out when I’m home and when I’m away. They could literally watch me. They could listen to me. They could talk to me. They could paint a picture of exactly how I live my life, when I sleep, when I work, when I eat, when I go to the bathroom.
Yes, my house is listening and talking, but I chose to put those devices there. I have control over their passwords and two-factor authentication. I can turn them off right now, and I’m sitting in an airport lounge 2,000 miles away from home. I’m in control.
The privacy issues are scary, but they don’t keep me up at night. I’m honestly more worried about my online bank account and the people who want access to it than I am about being listened to by a random engineer at Microsoft.
But there’s no getting around the fact that, with all this home automation and listening AI bots, I’m being watched. And, sure, it affects me. But not in a paranoid way, not in a tin-hat big-brother way, but in a way that perhaps early humans felt when they saw the moon come every day and watch over them as they slept before they found out that it was just a cold, dead rock that couldn’t get our of our orbit. I mean, it wasn’t even made of cheese.