In this series of articles, PSFK's Piers Fawkes will explore scenarios and signals that suggest the ways in which we will live by the end of this new decade. We’ll look at six key future trends, listen to expert opinions and examine fringe ideas that may be mainstream by 2030. This is the third post in the Future of Home+Living series.
The Komoru is a ceramic bowl that you put your phone into when you get home and want to unwind. This home design piece literally ensures that you get privacy, stopping your phone (and anything else you plonk in there) from sending or receiving signal.
The bowl has an internal wall made from metal and a sea of nickel microspheres within it. Made by the Gateshead-based design agency Cohda, the team adapted the principles of Michael Faraday’s Cage by replacing the rigid structure with a mass of conductive microspheres that are capable of stopping electromagnetic signals from reaching anything placed within them, including smartphones and even electronic key fobs.
“As society progresses towards a constantly connected, data-driven environment,” the designers at Cohda write on their website, “Komoru offers a place to switch off and seclude oneself from the digital world.”
It’s not just apps that track you — the very networks that you use could be hacked too. Bluetooth is a modern radio-wave system that most modern mobile phones employ. Writing for Mashable, Jack Morse says that even Bluetooth is hackable:
“Any frustration that comes from repeatedly pairing and unpairing your gadgets pales in comparison to getting hacked or having your privacy systematically violated. So turn off Bluetooth, grab some wired headphones, and enjoy the sweet sound of knowing you took a basic digital security precaution.”
Researcher Sarah Nabil considers the implications of personal data use in the sentient homes of the future, and it isn’t just technological hardware we should be worried about. “We would need to rethink a number of ethical, social and legal challenges, most notably inhabitants’ privacy and the use of their personal data,” Nabil writes for the Newcastle University website. “Because if interactive interiors become part of our homes, log and respond to our preferences, behaviors and psychological or physiological data, we might soon need new kinds of safeguard and consent for entering rooms or even for living with everyday objects such as a new hallway rug.”
Eric Corey Freed is an architect and thought leader when it comes to the sustainable development of cities. “An increase in privacy failures with IoT devices will cause consumers to demand vast improvements in privacy standards and rights. It will be a messy fight, but one I feel we’ll ultimately win,” he told me in an interview.
“You’ll also start to see a number of guerrilla measures for people to protect themselves. Voice scramblers will make spoken words unintelligible to recording devices, sunglasses will block unwanted retinal scanning, wearables will disable GPS and cellular tracking. You’ll start to see a reliance on old, analog methods to track things that people don’t want tracked. These methods are literally un-hackable.”
To me, Komoru is a signal about our growing concerns about how technology is attacking our privacy, even in the most sacred of places—our homes.
Picture this scenario: In 2030, technologies will be ever-vigilant and watch over people at home. Systems will check residents’ sleep, their happiness, their secrets. Whether people like it or not, an army of ambient supervisors will relentlessly report on their activities—to commercial organizations, our medical establishments, schools and governments.
At the same time, the bundle of vintage and up-to-date electronics within homes will expose residents to data burglary. Robo-hackers will call frequently on home systems to find weaknesses found often in the interface between modern devices and older appliances such as printers, thermostats and first-gen smart speakers.
Data will be the glue that binds modern life together, but a general literacy of the use of data will result in a growing number of people seeking to balance privacy with connectivity. They will look to shield themselves from anyone looking through data when they don’t explicitly allow it.
When people get home from one of their jobs, they will cloak themselves and their electronics to reduce the gathering and reporting of their behavior and deviances. On a simple level, they will put devices into dead-drawers to stop their connectivity—or they will even wrap themselves, their appliances and even their furniture in fabric to reduce the tracking. This fabric will block wireless signals, scramble conversations, reflect traces of body heat and mask figures from being recognized by computer-vision.
People might convert parts of their homes to block signals coming in and out of an area. This could be reworked homes or the addition of “phone boxes.” Residents may also use intermediaries—such as services or other people—that will manage the connection between consumer and producer for the delivery of content, entertainment and services while maintaining privacy.
On a more complex level, people will leverage decentralized networks to lead a coordinated dance of data exchange that will mask their digital activity but will also allow them to receive the content, entertainment and services they want to receive. Services will break incoming and outgoing data into so many pieces it will be near impossible to track it effectively.
Apparel & Beauty
In-home apparel will use materials that absorb sensor-beams or disrupt a computer’s vision and sonar. These materials may also double as protection from other harmful rays traveling through our atmosphere or projected by our technologies.
Grocery, Food & Beverage
Delivery services will become gatekeepers with a strict code of conduct with people’s data. They need to both provide a respectful and transparent use of the customer data and, meanwhile, provide restaurants and food producers with enough information to allow the short and long-term forecast for their business needs.
Packaging will begin to gather information from the moment it is picked up on a shelf or opened in a shipping box. The packaging will try to gather metrics such as demographics and location to adapt the physical look with electronic ink and meta-level digital experience with augmented reality. Customers will demand that brands and retailers use the minimum amount of personal data necessary, share it in a limited way and delete it as soon as possible.
Automotive & Mobility
Mobility companies will want to compete for transport budgets by trying to understand behavioral habits provided by the information gathered by in-home IoT devices. A ride-share will arrive 10 minutes after you close the refrigerator door for the third time each morning, or an electronic scooter could be dropped off at your door 20 minutes after you take your morning shower.
Consumers will need to work out which of their services they want to have in ‘Always Ambient,’ ‘Only When I’m Using’ or ‘Never’ track modes. Special wires will protect against hackers tapping into information and data running between appliances and electronics. Many will be wary of wireless networks, and people will use electronics that have coated cables. Some people will also use “dumb terminal” electronics, which do not have smart connectivity, and routers they trust to manage the control and the flow of data.
Health & Wellness
A debate will rage around the value of a constant flow of health data that’s collected. Our healthcare and insurance companies will expect us to live lives of purity and they will seek to punish transgression from a considered norm. Alternative and free-willed lifestyles may need to be shielded from this scanning — possibly through the purchase and upload of faux lifestyle health-data.
Recently, the government of Singapore announced they will giving everyone in the city a Fitbit to wear, with the option to share their biometric data with the government. The question is: Who is going to be tracking those steps? Fitbit also recently launched a new Apple Watch competitor that syncs with Amazon Alexa. Singaporeans might be getting some interesting suggestions the next time they go online shopping.
Back in North America, Apple has made an update to make user health data available to all healthcare providers. While there’s a lot of confidence in Apple’s ability to protect data, I’d assume that there are several points along the chain beyond Apple where the protection of that data is at risk from hacking.
It’s not just encrypted data from our wearables we might need to worry about: In the U.K., campaigners are warning that mental-health websites are risking visitor privacy by allowing brands to track the articles that people are reading.
There’s already a groundswell of signals that points to this trend of cloaking. There are rudimentary approaches like the Alexa “condom” created by Camsoda to stop tech listening in on intimate moments. Similarly, Capsule is designed to absorb noise from your conversations, and the same company offers a phone booth that can be installed inside a room. A more fantastical idea is this privacy tower concept from Brooklyn-based designers Some People Studio that people can use to shield themselves.
Winston is a recently launched network-shielding device that promises to prevent all invasions of privacy, from being watched by a smart TV to smartphone app data collection. The makers say that the technology in the box strips away corporate tracking and surveillance that invades your privacy, and makes the internet slower. Its Privacy Mesh routes digital traffic through numerous other Winston devices, selecting new peers every 10 minutes. This traffic is mixed anonymously with that of other users, making it “impossible” for trackers to connect individual users with their IP addresses.
“Aiding and abetting Amazon’s ambitions to manage the privacy of individual consumers is just one more step to an Amazon-monitored life for us humans,” Cynthia Holcomb, an expert in the use of data for personalization, told me. “Facial recognition, finger recognition, hand recognition, in-home monitoring of conversations by always-on, even if turned off, digital devices—privacy is being given up in the name of convenience.”
A 2019 report by Avast, a cybersecurity software company, found that 40% of digital homes worldwide contained at least one device vulnerable to cyberattacks, citing printers as the most common entry point. Could decentralization be the defense?
In the Guardian, Zoë Corbyn wonders if decentralization is the next big step for the World Wide Web and looks at the opportunities that it can offer. “The proponents of the so-called decentralized web—or DWeb—want a new, better web where the entire planet’s population can communicate without having to rely on big companies that amass our data for profit and make it easier for governments to conduct surveillance.”
To see where this might go, it might be worth looking at Filecoin, which aims to use blockchain to incentivize the decentralization of data storage on cloud networks. In this scenario, data would be scrambled across a network of partner storage devices. And the new WiFi 6 format will mean that even more of your IoT devices can talk to each other—and share your data.
In Counter Punch, Michael Barker wrote a feisty reaction to a book on corporate surveillance called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. Barker suggests that the fight against data collection needs to be at socialist-revolutionary levels and that there are “major shortcomings of the well-funded activism of petty-bourgeois anti-surveillance activists, many of whom ultimately end up lending legitimacy to the surveillance state.”
That sentiment might seem alarmist but there are other people who see privacy as a national-level issue. Writing in Fast Company, John Pavlus says, “In the future, data privacy—like climate change—may be something that regular people are willing to vote on with their dollars.” But while we wait for government and business to fix the system, people are going to find more ways to unplug, mask, hide and cloak.
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