Internet of Things

How much does your thermostat know about you?

With the growing IoT, everyday appliances know a lot about you. What does that mean for the future of privacy?

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Credit: flickr/nolifebeforecoffee

When Tony Fadell left Apple Computer to start a company that made thermostats, I thought “Huh?” No matter how cool the thermostat looked—digital display and sleek black hockey-puck design—it was still just a thermostat. Fadell had been the designer of the iPod, Apple’s very successful music player that changed the music industry. Instead he wanted to design thermostats? He became senior vice president of the iPod Division at Apple in 2006, and less than two years later he left. To start Nest Labs. To build thermostats.

Then when Google bought Nest last year for $3.2 billion, I thought, “What the &#@#?” For thermostats? At that point I figured that either 1) the world had gone crazy (a definite possibility) or 2) there was more to Nest than thermostats. After all, Google bought Motorola’s phone division for $12.5 billion in 2012 and sold it in 2014 for $2.9 billion and called the transaction “a success.” In today’s high tech world, sometimes up is down and profit is nowhere to be found. But Google did get Motorola’s valuable smartphone patent portfolio in the deal, so maybe there was more to the purchase of Nest than met the eye.

It didn’t take me long at that point to make the connection. The Nest thermostat was not just smart, it was connected. It was perhaps the most successful Internet of Things thing to date. It not only knows where you are in your house at all times of day, but it knows what temperatures you prefer. It can probably infer things like your work schedule, your meal schedule, your sleeping schedule. And then it can sell that data to car companies, restaurants and grocery stores, and pharmaceutical companies to recommend all kinds of products that can then show up at your door at a time when your thermostat knows you’re home.

Is that a bad thing? I guess it depends. Way back in 1999, when Google was barely more than a gleam in the eyes of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Scott McNealy, the outspoken CEO of Sun Microsystems said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Is that true? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Many years ago, when people communicated by talking rather than texting, people tended to know what other people were doing. If you go back far enough, communities were smaller and people knew something about their neighbors—what car they drove, where they worked, who their kids were, where they shopped. There was little privacy outside the house, but plenty of it inside the house. It was still limited. For example, to watch pornography you had to go to a store and buy it from someone behind the cash register rather than just click a link.

As cities became more crowded and technology allowed people to avoid human contact (even automobiles and telephones added to human isolation), people gained more privacy; maybe to the detriment of society, but that’s for a different article. Technology, via electronic networking, has swung the pendulum to the other extreme, destroying much of our privacy. The big difference, I believe, is not so much that we have little privacy but that we have little control over our privacy. We don’t know how to find that setting, for each of the thousands of apps on our phone or web browser, that limits the flow of our personal data. In some cases, there are none.

But at least we know that when we go online, we are sending data. We might not know where, but we know it’s going somewhere. And that’s my concern about smart thermostats, smart light bulbs, smart toasters, and smart toilets. We don’t know where that information is going. I think I can probably spend the extra time to walk over to the thermostat and turn it up or down on my own. I need the exercise. And I enjoy the privacy.

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