Digital Forbes

Four Questions For Apple About The Smart Home


Amadou Diallo, Contributor

May 30, 2014

As you may know from an earlier story,  Apple is reportedly gearing up to announce a smart home software platform, powered by iPhones and iPads, at its Worldwide Developer Conference next week. With this move, the Cupertino giant would be joining Samsung and Google in what many are predicting could be the next big area of growth now that the high-end smartphone market has matured.

The Internet of Things has long captured the imagination of Silicon Valley, with the promise of keyless locks that text you when your kids get home from school, refrigerators that know when you’re out of milk, and ovens that warm up as you pull into the driveway. No one sells desire quite like Apple, so the impending announcement, if true, could provide the world of Internet-connected home devices with its mainstream moment.

There’s a trade-off, however, for this automated home lifestyle. null  Before the hype machine kicks into gear, with its relentless focus on convenience and efficiency, here are four questions that Apple needs to answer.

1. Who owns my data? 

When it comes to user-generated data, the only meaningful constraints on its collection have been the inability to house it cheaply and analyze it efficiently. The plummeting costs of storing data and the rise of sophisticated algorithms for sifting through vast amounts of it in real-time, have enabled an unprecedented level of insight about our individual and collective behavior. And buried in the legalese of terms of service agreements for most cloud-based apps and services, is a wholesale giveaway of any rights to the data that our activity generates.

While most of us would be hard-pressed to imagine what we’d do with this data in the first place, I’d argue that a world of Internet-connected home devices raises the ownership stakes substantially. Data about what we do inside our own home can create a very intimate profile of our lives, one which we’re probably less comfortable sharing than say, our Facebook likes or online purchases.

Even those who argue that only the guilty have something to hide, would have to contend with some practical aspects of data ownership. Imagine that after living with Apple-certified appliances that have “learned” our behavior and routines over time, we want to switch to a platform by a rival like Samsung or Google. Will the learned behavior of our smart devices be wiped out, forcing us to start the training process all over again? At a minimum, there should be a simple way to port any data our devices have accumulated to another platform.

2. Who has access to my data?

User data is an asset in very high demand. An entire industry of data brokers has emerged to facilitate the buying and selling of our digital activity, usually without our knowledge. The FTC just released a report calling on Congress to offer consumer protections against the collection and sharing of user data, finding that it suffers from, “a fundamental lack of transparency.”

Apple is a highly trusted brand, one that consumers feel comfortable sharing their data with in exchange for services. But who else will get to see data about the goings on of our home devices?  As Apple has shown with its App Store, it can successfully impose significant restrictions on developers in order to achieve a unified level of quality and security for its users. When moving into an area as intimate as our homes, hardware and software developers must be held to strict compliance with a data privacy policy that is clearly communicated to the consumer and is backed by meaningful enforcement.

3. What data can the government get?

If many of us seem unconcerned about a company like Apple amassing our digital footprints, the mood quickly changes when the federal government is the one accessing the data. A recent piece in the New York Times details a lobbying offensive by tech companies – in light of Snowden’s NSA revelations – to reign in the government’s data requests. Under current interpretation of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act for example, federal investigators can request emails and cloud-stored data that is more than six months old, without a search warrant, and often without the burden of even notifying the person being investigated. In a fully connected home, this becomes an even greater concern.

Apple, of course cannot promise that the government won’t have access to our data. What it can do is tell us exactly what it is that authorities would see, with or without a subpoena. Is the data anonymized in such a way that our identity cannot be found through de-anonymization methods? Is the data encrypted? If so, are the digital “keys” needed to decipher the data stored locally on our iOS device, or in the cloud? Best practices exist for the safeguarding of sensitive data. I’ve reported on one approach, endorsed by a growing roster of tech companies, that relies on hardware authentication. Apple could give a huge boost to data security by publicly embracing already-existing standards for keeping data private and untraceable to an individual.

4. Is my home network secure?

If you’ve got a five-year-old router that’s never been dusted, let alone updated with the latest firmware, and you’re still using “admin” and “password” as the login, you should be more concerned about hackers than government agency data requests. Apple is in a unique position to influence user behavior around security for their wireless networks. Apple could provide default settings for any communications between home devices that require users to have networking equipment that meets strong security standards and that is set up with a reasonably secure login. Apple would be doing a great service by making basic security options, if not sexy, at least painless.

These are the issues I’m hoping to hear about if and when Apple does make its announcement.

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