Smart homes are here. But who owns your data?

As the price of sensors and communication technologies continue to fall dramatically, the Internet of Things (IoT) landscape is becoming increasingly vast and changing ever more rapidly. We’re also seeing this sort of intelligence start to emerge into the residential space, where the home of the future has power generating windows, light bulbs that collect and transmit data, bathroom mirrors turning into screens to display the day’s weather and traffic information, floor rugs playing musing, and beds becoming relationship counsellors! And while this may seem to describe the Jetsons’ home, it’s happening now. A few months ago Alexa burst onto the scene to allow users to talk to their connected home products. Now Google has announced plans for a voice-enabled device of their own to go on sale later in the year, opening up the connected home space even further and providing the - yet untapped - potential for consumers to play an even bigger role in managing their household energy demands.


Currently there are hundreds of smart home products are on the market, but one of the main barriers today is around interoperability. Though while they aren’t all able to talk to one another yet, many form smaller product eco-systems with which consumers can interact. Software platforms that support this interoperability can deliver additional benefits to consumers, as well as upstream to the utility and/or grid, but this requires devices to share data and communicate with one another in real time. In a move toward this interconnected future Nokia has launched an IoT Platform, along with a $350 million IoT fund. And now Samsung plans to deploy $1.2 billion in research and start-ups in the next 4 years. Samsung and SK Telecom are rolling out a public Internet of Things network in South Korea, where connected devices will be able to tap into the network to share data and optimise their operation beyond just the home; for example, street lights fitted with sensors to collect pollution and weather data and adjust operation accordingly, saving money and energy.


Data is key to enabling real time demand flexibility and aggregation of resource, and Google, perhaps unsurprisingly, are taking a leading role in using data to drive more effective management of their operations and demand. They have cut energy use in their data centres by 15% by implementing machine learning techniques developed by DeepMind, a British artificial intelligence company their acquired in 2014. And AutoGrid Systems have raised $20m in venture capital financing to develop platforms that can analyse data from disparate sources so that connected hardware and software can make better use of it.


But to optimise across a system relies on huge amounts of data from each part of that system, which may sit in silos that are hard to access. Even within a single home, there may be smart appliances made by a variety of manufacturers, with lights from Phillips, a thermostat from Honeywell, and a PV/storage system from solarcity. For some of these devices the value is in the the advanced control functionality they provide users, and data about energy demands may not even even be collected. For others it may be collected by not stored, and increasingly there are smart home products embedding intelligence within devices (rather than cloud) making it unclear how much data will remain within customers homes (and be communicated between products directly) and how much will be sent to the cloud and available for others, outside of the home (e.g. remote access from users, access by utilities) to use. For other devices (and manufacturers) the value of their products is shifting from hardware to software; in their world where data is king will they give it away for others to use? And even if we could find a way to share the data there may still be barriers in place due to a lack of standardisation in how different devices store and manage data, and how they are addressed and process commands.

And then there is the question of who owns and can access the data being collected. Much of this data could give rise to highly personal information about when we are at home and how we live. Should this belong to the household about whom it is collected, or to the company whose product collects it? And what about security issues? Most connected devices have weak login credentials, with 80% failing to require passwords of sufficient complexity and length. In addition, 70% don't encrypt communications, and consequently new malware is being developed to target IoT specifically. Most people (including those working in the industry) are not equipped with the skills or knowledge required to understand these new and complex issues arising, or to take agency over their own data. As the value in “smart” homes, workplaces, and cities increasingly depends on access to and use of personal data, there needs to be greater consideration around how we manage this data and protect consumers in the emerging "smart" new era.


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