January 14, 2016

Privacy and Information Sharing

7. Scenario: Home activities, comfort and data capture

Smart thermostat

The emergence of “smart” home devices and appliances has long been anticipated by both science-fiction writers and technology enthusiasts. In recent years, a number of firms have begun initiatives related to the Internet of Things, particularly in the realm of smart homes and appliances. A 2012 canvassing of technology experts by Pew Research Center found widely varying prophecies about whether smart systems would live up to their promise and take hold among consumers in the ways that forecasters were predicting.

Smart thermostats, which have often been promoted as a way to save energy and promote personal safety, are some of the earliest smart-home devices to gain a foothold in the marketplace. However, Americans are not generally comfortable with the implicit trade-offs outlined in the following scenario:

A new technology company has created an inexpensive thermostat sensor for your house that would learn about your temperature zone and movements around the house and potentially save you on your energy bill. It is programmable remotely in return for sharing data about some of the basic activities that take place in your house like when people are there and when they move from room to room.

Some 55% of adults find this a “not acceptable” scenario, while 27% say it is acceptable. Another 17% say “it depends” on the particulars of the arrangement. Those ages 50 and older are among the most likely to say it is not acceptable: 69% say this, compared with 48% of those under age 50.

Many of those who weighed this scenario were focused on what specific information is collected, who it is shared with, and what happens to their data after it is captured:

Movements around the house are fine (for example, only heat bedrooms at night), but I would not want it to record when people are or aren’t there (potential security risk).

“[This would be OK with me] as long as others do not know my name and or location.”

“A learning thermostat is a great idea and exists already. But sharing data about my movements with someone else ‘on the other end’ is not acceptable. That’s an invasion of privacy. Nobody needs to know my movements within my house.”

“I would be concerned that the data could be used to find out when nobody was home – I don’t want anyone tracking what I do in my home.”

“It would depend more precisely on the details of the company’s privacy statement. What can they use the collected information for? And do they share it with third parties? If they can use the information for anything but controlling my house’s HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning], I would be very hesitant to participate.”

“Movements around the house are fine (for example, only heat bedrooms at night), but I would not want it to record when people are or aren’t there (potential security risk).”

“I would be willing to use this service if they provided the thermostat for free and paid me a small amount each month to allow them to collect data on my household.”

“Distribution to 3rd parties and data security would be key. I wouldn’t want just anyone knowing my habits of coming and going. Might as well leave a sign for the burglars.”

Many invoked the specter of security issues: As one respondent put it, “The security risks are not outweighed by the benefits.” Others objected to their data being captured in a space – their home – that heretofore had been private:

It is creepy to think someone is following you around, but the idea is a good one. Would have to know how intrusive ‘basic activities’ are.

“My house is too small, and/or the upgrades necessary for my house to ‘zone’ the HVAC for different locations would be cost-prohibitive. It is my castle, and nobody needs to know how long I or any member of my family takes a shower or makes a meal.” “Knowledge is control. My utility company already chastises me for not being more ‘efficient’ as compared to my neighbors; I don’t need them to tell me to take quicker showers, or potentially charge me a ‘shower premium!’”

“Crosses a line – too intrusive. Goes into creepy zone of being watched!”

“No need for this camel to have its nose in my tent. Too voyeuristic.”

“It is creepy to think someone is following you around, but the idea is a good one. Would have to know how intrusive ‘basic activities’ are.”

“What I do and which room I am in my home is no one’s business but mine.”

“Don’t want others to know when the house is unoccupied.”

“I don’t want that info possibly hacked.”

According to one focus group participant:“ I would be afraid that someone would hack into the data & use it to determine when your house is no occupied.”

Others made the case for human choice and agency over assistance from a smart gadget. If people truly cared about energy safety and remote monitoring of their security, this argument goes, they would arrange for it themselves:

My home. My temperatures. My control.

“I already, cut-to-the-bone, have a low electricity bill; this thermostat will not benefit me. I don’t use the heater or air conditioner.”

“I control my thermostat. Nobody else needs to have any sort of control over how I cool/warm my house.”

“My home. My temperatures. My control.”

“All of this stuff is way too invasive of my personal space! It’s like they all want to be in control of everyone at all times. Know what we are doing etc. No thank you.”

“Because in your home you are not being watched or tracked and that should be your one place away from all that sensor nonsense.”