“Smartphones are increasingly the remote controls for our lives,” says Jeff Kagan, a technology analyst. “They will control everything in your house and car.”
Google’s GOOG -0.49% purchase of home automation company Nest Labs gives the world’s biggest search engine a foothold in people’s homes. But experts say Internet companies are already tracking the habits of Americans at home — and it’s only just begun.
For decades, futurists have been predicting the era of the “smart” home, where you don’t need to be home to lock your doors, dim your lights or adjust your thermostats. But except for the homes of the wealthy and a few hobbyists, the smart home has been a dream of the distant future. The necessary gadgets have been too expensive and too difficult to configure, and there have been few standards to ensure that the various pieces would work together.
“You can expect to see more companies attempting to do this in coming years, tracking nearly every movement in your home,” says Neil Strother, senior research analyst at Navigant Research. There is already a small army of apps doing just that. SmartThings, a free app for iOS and Android, monitors light switches, unlocked doors and car keys.
But new products unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week suggest that the smart home may soon be within reach of the average American.
Instead of having to spend thousands of dollars to have a custom installer put in a home automation system, consumers now can get one for $30 to $50 a month from their broadband provider.
“We’re close,” said Chet Geschickter, an analyst who covers home automation services for Gartner.
Home automation company Vivint , bought for $2 billion by Blackstone Capital Partners in 2012, says it services 800,000 customers in North America. Its free iOS app can act as a motion detector, remote-controlled security system and electronic door lock. AT&T’s Digital Life offers plans from $4.99 per month that track water leaks, energy usage, unlocked doors and home security cameras. Tech company Belkin even launched asmartphone-controlled slow cooker .
How does this affect your privacy? What companies learn when you check in at a restaurant on Facebook or plug your location into Google Maps pales in comparison to the wealth of data that they’ll glean from (and possibly use against) consumers in the not-so distant future, says Adi Kamdar, an activist at the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer advocacy group focusing on online privacy. “Connected cars may report unsafe driving, raising or canceling your insurance,” he says. Similarly, a home insurance company might be interested in a smoke detector that goes off several times a day. “During a divorce, your spouse subpoenas a thermostat company for records to prove that you set low temperatures in the house, keeping your kids too cold.
Is that something you want to even deal with?
Does potential use of consumer data take into account data hacking? “What happens if someone gets into your phone?” says Rick Singer, CEO of GreatApps.com. Or into your smart meter?
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