Beware the Smart Home

By Miranda Hall
November 2018

Original artwork by Grace Quah

In 1977 horror film ‘Demon Seed’ a woman is held captive in her home by Proteus, an evil superintelligent AI. When her husband, who designed the system, begs it to stop, Proteus replies: “I am reason. It is the single emotion you permitted me, doctor.” Proteus sounds uncannily similar to the majority of men I met at university. But he also prompts us to think about the social and political implications of a range of new technologies related to the ‘Smart Home’.


‘Smart’ things are everywhere. They belong to an age of austerity and privatisation where questions of ‘what is morally right?’ are replaced by questions of ‘what is most efficient?’ Most visible is the Smart City which is sold as a service by private firms to cash-strapped municipalities with the promise of high-tech fixes to deep-rooted structural problems.


Now Silicon Valley wants to make private spaces smarter too. The past few years have seen a massive boom in Smart Home services that promise to make our lives easier from assistive devices like Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet’s Nest to digitally enhanced co-living start-ups. But whose lives will they actually make easier?


So far, Smart Home innovations have only amplified existing inequalities within the home and reinforced dominant dynamics of property ownership and coercive economic relations. There are three main issues – the way in which connected devices shape domestic spaces as sites of labour and social interaction, the collection of domestic data to categorize citizens and the relation of smart housing to gentrification and financialisation. A more critical approach to these tech ‘solutions’ to the places we live is therefore necessary.

IoT: Internet of Torment

‘Internet of Things’ devices are experienced differently by different members of a household depending on who installs them and controls the passwords. This often falls along gendered lines as stereotypes like the ‘man cave’ demonstrate. A recent investigation by the NY Times revealed how a growing number of women have experienced new forms of domestic abuse through internet-connected locks, lights and cameras. Abusers, including ex-partners, would use apps on their phone to watch and listen to victims or to intimidate them by switching off the air con or changing the door code.


These devices are increasingly marketed not to individual families but to landlords and estate agents who install and use them to exercise control over tenants. For example, when real estate investors purchase rent-controlled buildings in American cities, they often adopt sly tactics to push out protected low-income occupants and replace them with wealthier ones to make more money. These tactics increasingly involve spying on tenants with internet-connected devices or cameras to generate evidence that the contract has been breached, justifying eviction. Smart lock systems also make it harder to resist unfair eviction and landlords have ultimate control over access to the property by resetting codes.


Precarious workers in the home service industry such as cleaners and handymen will also be subject to new surveillance technologies, shifting the balance of power in favour of employers. This ranges from the traditional ‘nanny cams’ used to spy on carers to maintenance requests apps in the private rental sector.  Platforms like TaskEasy and AirTasker (or systems those developed in-house by estate agents) connect residents to local contractors who must use the app to check in and out of jobs, follow a designated route and upload photographic evidence of their task.

Original artwork by Grace Quah

A Domestic Data Drive

Many Smart Home devices on the market seem totally pointless. The historical argument for inviting more technology into the house focussed on the reduction of housework. But Ruth Cowan’s More Work for Mother (1983) reveals that the proliferation of so-called ‘labour-saving devices’ from electric irons to vacuum cleaners has done little to reduce housework, instead increasing cleanliness standards and transforming housekeeping into a more solitary and time-consuming occupation.

The real aim of the Internet of Things is to suck up as much data as possible then work out what to do with it at a later point. Your husband, your landlord or your boss won’t be the only ones watching you in the Smart Home. Last year, robotic vacuum Roomba found itself in a privacy row after its CEO suggested that the maps of our living spaces collected by the device could be sold to Google, Apple or Alphabet in the next couple of years. Facebook is also now trying to get into your home with Portal, its new kitchen or living room gadget to compete with devices from Amazon and Google.


In addition to assistive devices that consumers can install in their homes, there is a rising number of companies with a business model based on treating buildings like ‘giant computers.’  For co-living startups like Tipi, Roomr, PureHouse, The Collective and WeLive, their main asset is not bricks and mortar but data and digital processes.  They know how much and when you sleep, your TV habits, food preferences and how much time you spend in different places in your apartment. There is no guarantee this data won’t be sold on as venture capital backing presses companies to prioritise profit over privacy. “People weren’t upset that Facebook sold their data, they were upset they didn’t tell them” argues COO Avi Litchenstein.


There are already concerns that this domestic data extraction could violate GDPR and other data protections due to ambiguity surrounding what qualifies as ‘personal data.’ A recent report to the ICO led by Dr Veronica Barassi argues that smart technologies aimed at adults but encountered by children pose potential privacy risks as ‘messy’ data on home life activities is mixed up with the personal data. While GDPR stipulates that specific protection is required when handling childrens data, its left up to parents to navigate confusing terms and conditions.


But even when the extraction of this data from our homes is legal, it has the potential to shape our lives in alarming ways. For a while now, major insurance companies like John Hancock have replaced traditional life insurance with interactive policies that track your behaviour through wearable devices. Now startups like Kin are looking to use connected devices in people’s homes to price their home insurance as part of the growing ‘fintech’ industry. The use of ‘non-traditional data’ from people’s homes, wearables and social media profiles has become popular in more and more sectors to rank and rate individuals and determine what they get access to, amplifying existing inequalities.

Original artwork by Grace Quah

From Smart Homes to Smart Housing

Amazon has recently taken its smart home ambitions a step further by actually investing in a company that builds homes. Real estate or construction companies rarely feature in discussions about the digital economy or even the Smart City with notable exceptions like the work of Sophia Maalsen. This probably comes from the mischaracterisation of digital processes as an ‘immaterial’ phenomenon, composed of things that exist ‘in the cloud.’ In reality, digital technologies increasingly reshape entire urban landscapes. Constant flows of data from neighbourhoods or individual properties are part of an emerging ecosystem of ‘proptech’ services that make it easier for institutional investors to create and manage massive portfolios of geographically dispersed homes, accelerating the financialisation of housing.


The emergence of ‘smart’ co-living spaces previously mentioned also allows real estate firms to charge a ‘smartness premium.’ With digitally-enabled shared facilities and social networks for all members, they offer a quick cure for the epidemic of loneliness under neoliberalism – but only for people who can afford £2,000 per month. These buildings will mushroom in urban areas to produce entire ‘start-up districts’ or ‘innovation clusters.’ Richard Florida claims that these will spur urban growth by attracting entrepreneurs and creatives or as Morozov and Bria  put it, “smart cities attract smart citizens and smart citizens attract smart money.” The result is that existing communities are forced out as the cost of housing soars.


Even for those who can afford the extortionate rent, automated tenant screening processes (based on the same non-traditional data described above) could keep them out of these smart districts. In the US, start-ups such as Naborly and Certn offer detailed profiles of tenants including numerical rankings for character and personality traits based on their online activity.

Original artwork by Grace Quah

Building a Socialist Smart Home?

Underlying all these issues with the Smart Home are fundamental threats to the home itself in the UK today with a 50% rise in homelessness, 1.2 million families waiting for social housing and soaring rent driving families into debt.  


Connected devices may offer a new tool for harassment but for thousands of victims of gendered violence across the UK, their home is already the most dangerous place they can be as housing benefit changes have gotten in the way of supporting victims of domestic abuse. The ‘automated landlord’ has made life harder for tenants but this is because they hardly had any rights in the first place with the systematic dismantling of rent regulations since the 80s. People are willing to hand over huge amounts of data in their homes only because soaring rent and a shortage of housing stock put them in a desperate position.  The emergence of ‘smart districts’ is just one manifestation of forced gentrification and social cleansing masked as ‘regeneration’ in cities like London


Since they first appeared, ‘Smart Home’ devices have been marketed as faithful servants, ready to aid and assist their owners. The truth is that they have been designed to serve only the interests of capital as houses become assets. We need to start imagining digital technologies that could serve emancipatory projects aimed at ensuring homes for all that are not just ‘smarter’ but happier, safer and more secure.

Miranda Hall is a writer and researcher at the New Economics Foundation. Her current research is focused on labour, gender and technology.  She can be found on Twitter at: @Miranda_Lena