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Is it still possible to have privacy in a connected world?

webcam photo by mshades on flickr - internet privacy

By  - Head of Digital Marketing. 

We recently learnt that Google has acquired Nest Labs, a company that specialises in smoke alarms and thermostats that you can control from your phone. The concept is brilliant; who wouldn't want to be able to turn the heating on from their phone while on their way back from holidays so the house is nice and warm when you get in? But while the concept is appealing, Google’s involvement, on the other hand…

Home Automation is the future

Most of my friends are geeks, and some are very good at DIY too, which means that I often get to discover new concepts and technologies without even needing to ask or look for them. One such friend decided to install home automation devices all over his house, from lights to the vaccuum cleaner, and he created an app himself to allow him to control the whole system. For instance, his vacuum cleaner is controlled from his basement, and all he has to do is turn it on with his app and plug his hose into sockets he’s installed in each room to clean the whole house: no more carrying the vaccuum cleaner around, no more noise, and with enough sockets everywhere no need to have metres of cables and hose lying around. And you don’t even need to go to the basement to turn it off! That is domotics to me: making life easier – and possibly making boring things more fun.

Home Automation has existed for quite some time now, but you had to complicate your life before making it easier; what I mean is, you had to install cables and such before you could control and monitor everything from a control app. The ‘new’ domotics make everything simple thanks to the Internet, as you can work everything remotely and install smart appliances in minutes. That is the case for Nest thermostats but also for instance for Sonos speakers which take less than 10 minutes to set up with Wi-Fi. What takes the most time is unpacking the device! Thanks to wireless technology, smart appliances are now easy both to use and to set up, making the whole process, as well as our lives, easier.

Google’s knack for investments

Even if you don’t like Google, they do have a great nose for new things, they are good at finding and developing new concepts and they do it better than most. Last but not least, they have money. Let’s face it: Google Maps is really good, Google Street View is quite amazing, Google’s automated car is impressive, and Google Glass, which is scheduled to be released this year, has potential. Google definitely seems to like “smart” products, and Nest will certainly not be the last acquisition made by Google – they acquired 4 companies in January and 8 in December, although Nest was the first Home automation company. Smart phones, smart cars, smart thermostat, the question is not when will it stop but what will be next?

Comfort v. privacy

The problem is that making our lives easier seems to require intruding into, and tracking, everything we do. Searching for something on the Internet is easier than ever, and since Google creates a search bubble we are shown results tailored to our profile. Give websites information about you (visiting a website is generally information enough), and your browsing experience will be personalised, showing you ads that may interest you, telling you which ones of your friends visited that website too (visit TripAdvisor while signed in to your Facebook account for instance), and so on. Similarly, thanks to GPS, our smartphones can tell us exactly where we’ve been… personally I don’t know whether to be scared or amazed… I’m not even mentioning the NSA which reportedly collects information on all of us, without any benefit to us, and without us knowing about or being able to prevent it.

To avoid being tracked (too much), the most effective solution would be to stop using the Internet and smart technologies, but if you don’t want to be that extreme you need to let go of the comfort offered by big companies and do things yourself, with open source software and elbow grease. This requires more time and energy, but you gain privacy. There is always a price to pay, isn’t there?

Alternatives to Google & co

Some things you can do to try and have a private life while using the Internet are setting up a personal Cloud to store and back-up your files, using your own server for e-mails, always browsing the Internet in incognito mode, using search engines such as Duck Duck Go, deleting cookies from your computer, and logging out of your social media accounts and such as soon as you’re done using them. You can also drop Windows and adopt Linux, which is open-source and just as easy to use as any other OS. This is possible, but that does mean you sacrifice comfort for privacy, when nowadays everything goes towards making things easy and comfortable for us.

Coming back to home automation and domotics, the principle is the same: there are ways to keep some privacy while enjoying smart technologies, and that’s to own them and take part in their creation. Not everyone can create a control app themselves, but there is a half-way between doing everything yourself and letting businesses do it for you. To me, this is one of the reasons why crowd-funding works so well nowadays: people share their ideas and ask for funding, and you can choose to back projects you are interested in. Kickstarter is probably one of the most famous crowd-funding websites, but it does not allow home improvement products to be crowd-funded, which means that people such as the creators of Lockitron (which allows your door to unlock when your phone is close) were left to – successfully in this case - crowd-fund their project by creating their own open-source platform, Selfstarter. Other crowdfunding websites include Indiegogo and Rockethub.

We have a choice to make

The silly thing is that it’s really simple and comfortable to allow websites and big corporations into our lives so we have fewer things to worry about. I really appreciate not having to log into my accounts every time I open my browser for instance. It’s all nice and easy, and it’s hard not to get used to it. Similarly, some big corporations offer very good products, so why not take advantage of it?

But if you’re tired of seeing the increased presence of big corporations such as Google in your life and wish to regain some control over it, it is possible but it will require some time and effort on your part, and it may feel like a step backwards. So what do you prefer? Comfort or privacy?

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