Smart living: quite transparent

Industry and retail are delighted about the increasing networking of household appliances. But users are becoming more transparent than ever before.

Is this kitchen completely networked? Photo: Cluus / photocase.de

Marco Maas has recently started talking to a black column that sits on his living room shelf. "Alexa," he then says, for example, "livingroom light 50." A few seconds later, the lamps in the living room dim their brightness by half. Magic? More like the Internet of Things in the form of an almost completely networked home.

The networking of everyday objects such as heating systems, electric toothbrushes or even lamps, is one of the major future topics of digitalization. "We expect 1.5 to 2 million networked households by 2020," says Gunther Wagner from the auditing firm Deloitte. Telekom, which itself offers smart home products, expects that by 2022 there will be more than 500 networked devices in an average household. This is a growth market that industry and commerce alike are looking forward to. But what will the networking of the home mean for people?

The future can already be seen today in Hamburg-Altona. On the fifth floor, with a view over the neighborhood, Maas, managing director of an agency for data journalism and data visualizations, has networked everything on 60 square meters that didn’t hide quickly enough in the closet. From the lamp to the heater, from the scale to the stereo. There are currently 118 devices. And the trend is rising.

It all started in 2014, when Maas got his hands on a lighting system that could be controlled by smartphone at a low price from an insolvency estate. The lamps were quickly joined by motion sensors so that the light is actually only on when someone is in the room. In addition, there are brightness sensors so that the fixed lighting is not on during the day. In the meantime, he has set his system in such detail that only minimal lighting comes on in the hallway when someone gets up at night. All without a light switch. "When the smart home works well," Maas says, "you forget you have it." That’s because a lot of things work on their own, and when they don’t, all it takes is a quick voice command.

Networking with side effects

But networking has side effects. Anyone who flicks the light switch in his or her home doesn’t normally generate any data traces. But when Maas turns the lights on and off, it’s not just the manufacturer of the lighting system that knows. Maas’ Internet provider also sees that a command was executed for the device; after all, the data is sent over the Internet.

Trade fair: The world’s largest computer trade fair, "Cebit," starts in Hanover on Monday. From March 14 to 18, some 3,300 companies from 70 countries will be represented there. Key topics include data security and digital transformation.

Focus: The partner country at this year’s Cebit is Switzerland, which will be represented by a good 80 companies in Hanover.

Home: When it comes to the smart home, one of the topics is the different standards. Because at the moment, networking often fails because the various devices from the different manufacturers are not compatible. (sve)

The same applies to other devices, whether they measure movement in the home or the CO2 content in the air, which allows conclusions to be drawn about how many people are in a room. Its smart technology sends around 600 megabytes of data over the network every day. That’s roughly the equivalent of a medium-quality feature film.

The reason Maas is able to give this figure at all is that he has installed a device that records all the data his technology sends out. So if the little silver cylinder, which is supposed to measure volume, is recording conversations, Maas would notice it based on the amount of data.

Unlike the average user, who – unless he spends his free time studying terms of use – doesn’t even know what the manufacturer of the smart lighting system is storing and what he’s doing with it. Not to mention the problem that unauthorized persons can access the data due to security gaps – or perhaps hack into the home network right away. And this data says a lot.

"One day, we will be able to read disease patterns from the movement patterns in an apartment," Maas is convinced. Staying in the bedroom all day, with unusually frequent trips to the bathroom? Sure, right? Completely new possibilities open up here for law enforcement or intelligence agencies. And for advertisers. "It’s only a matter of time before there will be exploitation channels for this," says Maas. The display of the networked scale, for example, which immediately advertises a diet product.

Life support for the elderly

Maas and Wagner are not the only ones who are convinced that one day we will nevertheless live in a networked environment – either very much or just a little. Because in addition to a gain in comfort and control and a risk of surveillance and loss of control, networking offers something else: safety, especially for older people living alone. Sensors that automatically send an emergency call in the event of a fall. Wristbands that monitor vital parameters such as pulse and sound the alarm if necessary. Motion sensors that can detect when someone hasn’t left the bedroom for two days.

Increased heart rate readings from her fitness wristband recently led a New York woman to believe she was pregnant. These values are also available to the provider of the wristband – so one day suitable advertising could appear even before the expectant mother herself knows about her pregnancy.

What happens when the sensors and alarms go wrong is something Maas has experienced elsewhere. After his bag and keys were stolen, he was already at the police station when his smartphone reported that something was moving in the apartment. The locksmith and the police were at the door – but they didn’t use their weapons. The only thing that had moved was the robot vacuum cleaner.