Privacy, A Luxury of the Past

Over the past decade we have seen the gradual erosion of online privacy. Recent revelations of a world-wide monitoring system being carried out by the NSA have confirmed this fact (Guardian, 2013). The average internet-user generates a great deal of unsecured personal data. Indeed, organisations such as the NSA are capable of building rather sophisticated profiles of almost all of us. From our personal e-mails to our favourite TV shows and books, all data provided by internet-users can be obtained by organisations of significant means. This is not limited to government agencies, internet giants such as google and Facebook collect data on hundreds of millions of users world-wide. Whenever data is stored on a server there is the potential for this data to be hacked for nefarious purposes.  In a world where internet use is playing an increasingly significant role in all of our lives this is matter of great concern. While a great deal of our personal information is already at risk, the proliferation of smart-home technology represents a major expansion of this information and potentially the greatest threat to personal privacy of our age.

     In order to fully appreciate this threat you must first understand the type of data which smart-home technology is capable of generating. Many aspects of domestic life are likely to be impacted by smart-home technology. Home appliances which we take for granted, will be transformed into sophisticated Wi-Fi enabled devices capable of transferring information. For example, your fridge may eventually be capable monitoring the type of food you eat and automatically ordering groceries based on these preferences (Samsung, 2014). It has been suggested that Smart homes may be capable of playing the role of medical physician and carrying out basic health tests on a daily basis (Marsh, 2001). This would involve the transmission of highly private information to the service provider’s servers. Smart thermostats are capable of analysing user’s energy consumption patterns and turning the heat on and off depending on previous user behaviour (Nest, 2014). It may be argued that these are relatively innocent pieces of information and no one in their right mind should care if their taste in food can be hacked. However, this is a misleading argument. While such pieces of data may individually seem trivial, when taken together with other information already being provided via the internet they provide a highly descriptive profile of an individual. Smart home technology has the potential to substantially widen the pool of information available about us all.

     Beyond profiling, abuse of the data generated by smart homes is capable of producing far more sinister outcomes. Smart security systems, such as Xfinity provided by Comcast, will offer users home surveillance and door-locking capabilities via smartphone. Consider the risks of such data being acquired by third parties. The private domain would be utterly compromised, with the most intimate aspects of a person’s life exposed. This also represents a major security risk, any hacker capable of accessing this information would not only have a window into your personal life but also the means to enter your home at will. While it would be unfair to suggest that Comcast will not do their utmost to protect this data, information of this nature would be highly appealing to hackers world-wide and some government agencies. When such groups set their sights on a piece of information it can no longer be considered secure.

     “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” (Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google), such sentiments are commonly espoused by organisations which collect our data. This statement, which bears an eerie resemblance to a press release from the ministry of love, can easily be exposed to be fallacious by applying the most basic levels of scrutiny. There are a great number of behaviours which are not illegal that a person may not wish exposed to the public domain. The onus should not to be on citizens to justify their preference for privacy but rather it ought to lie on the corporations who threaten this fundamental right.

Alan power


  1. Eric Schmidt quoted by Newman, B (2014), My Favourite privacy quotes, Available at (Accessed 9 March 2014)
  2. Jarvis,J (2013), The Guardian, Available at (Accessed 8 March 2014)
  3. Samsung (2014). Samsung. Available at ( Accessed 8 March 2014)
  4. Marsh, J (2001). Rochester. Available at (Accessed 7  March 2014)
  5. Nest Lab (2014). Available at

(Accessed 9 March 2014)

  1. Newman, B (2014) My Favourite privacy quotes, Available at (Accessed 9 March 2014)

Cocooning: Will we all end up like this?

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Who hasn’t seen the funny cartoons of fat people sitting in their chairs while everything around them is managed by technology? We all laugh at a thought something like that could actually happen – but aren’t we in many ways a society that already behaves like that?

Just think about it:How often do you go out for dinneror do you get food delivered instead? Or are you already using a smart fridge that analyses the food in your fridge, tells you what you can cook with it, prints you the recipe and times the oven and even orders food that is needed? That new shirt you ordered online suits you very well – but guess what – you got it without leaving your home.  How often have you been to the cinema lately or did you watch the latest movies/football match online?  I am sure your TV is absolutely fantastic with great sound and it (almost) feels like you are at the match/cinema… without having to face cold and rainy weather or hooligans. Home entertainment is also facilitated by Wii, Xbox or PlayStations. Check out this clip about the Microsoft IllumiRoom:

Safety is another good example: Whether it was the garden fence or technological security systems that we can even control when on the run through our phone, or sensors that help recognize the health of a person living in a house… We are spending more and more time at home – even for work – , constructing our own space, totally controlled, and safe and somewhat isolated from the rest of the world. This trend is called “Cocooning” a trend that was first discussed by Faith Popcorn, a Marketing Consultant in the 1990s.

She defines Cocooning as “the impulse to go inside when it just gets too tough and scary outside.  To pull a shell of safety around yourself, so you’re not at the mercy of [the mean and unpredictable] – those harassments and assaults that run the gamut from rude waiters and noise pollution to crack-crime, recession, and AIDS” (California State University, 1995) or in somewhat clearer words: “Cocooning is the act of insulating or hiding oneself from the normal social environment, which may be perceived as distracting, unfriendly, dangerous, or otherwise unwelcome, at least for the present”  (Definition Cocooning).

Cocooning can be broken down into three further parts: There is the social cocoon, which is characterized by retreating into the privacy of one’s own home. Secondly, the armoured cocoon, which establishes a barrier to protect oneself from external threats. This can be aligned with the garden fences, security systems or even firewalls. Finally, the wandering cocoon is characterized by a technology isolating you from the environment for example through earphones (Definition Cocooning). There are also combined cocoons, such as the one of armoured and social, through wireless technologies: You are occupied with Facebook while on the go and therewith let selected others into your wandering cocoon.

In her article “Super Cocooning – Cocooning: It’s back and thanks to tech it’s bigger” (2013), Faith Popcorn states that “Cocooning is not a new behaviour. Born out of a mix of fear and fun, it became a trend identified with cold War unease that led to stay-at-home entertainment such as the first home video game systems, rec rooms and the adoption of home swimming pools and trampolines”.  Ever since, terror attacks, public shootings, pollution and even immigration are all triggers for such behaviour (Lane and Gorman-Murry, 2011).

Now, one might wonder what all this has to do with Smart Homes.There is an easy answer to that question: Technological progress facilitates such behaviour. The simple facts of using a telephone instead of talking to a person directly, or the smart fridge or pay TV, are good examples.According to a JP Morgan Chase Analysis, consumers where spending 65% more on consumer electronics such as TVs and Tablets in the last quarter of 2012 than in the year before while spending less on hotels or car rentals (Popcorn, 2013). This and the fact that people upgrade their pay TVpackages with about 23% of households paying more than $100 monthly indicate that home entertainment, and staying at home – or cocooning – is rising. This trend is obviously facilitated through falling technology prices which make the products more affordable for the wider public. Another important indicator is the Smart Home market value, that is expected to double until 2018 to $71 billion— up from $33 billion in 2013, and $25 billion in 2012 (Weber, 2014). Through the Smart Home we are able to design our house to our liking, smart heating systems make the house warm and comfortable before we come in, we are woken up by a set alarm and the lights turn on automatically, the fridge tells us what to cook and orders food, and home entertainment is as good as in the outside world. It is a house totally aligned to our individual likings and we have control over it – even when we are not there, which may give a sense of security.  We are connected to it and can see what is going on, or turn on a wash even when we are outside through our phone. It is like our own little bubble that we carry around and that isolates us from the outside world. Effectively, it is a way to bring our home with us in a certain way and increase the wandering cocoon, while on the other side decreasing the necessity even further to even leave the house – That’s super cocooning of the 21st century.

Cocooning also has a very interesting effect on our economy. While Hollywood responded to the trend by bringing movies quicker into pay TV (Popcorn, 2013), it is noticeable that certain industries do not suffer under extreme economic downturns during crisis. Industries like that include: furniture, chocolate and home appliances. Companies such as Lindt (chocolates) or LOEWE (premium TVs and multi room solutions) stated in 2009 that they accounted for increased revenues during the economic downturn of the previous years(Haslauer, 2009), as they are the kind of products you buy to increase the homeliness of your house – a great indicator for cocooning.

Now as can be noticed, people like to create a safe environment: their home, a place that is reflective of an individual’s identity to create a sense of difference between the public and private domain (Guihen, 2013). While home technology can facilitate much of this identity and make the home place more homely, it also comes with certain implications for Smart Home use.  For example, the sensors used may be unacceptable for individuals living in the house as they may be received as taking away part of the control. “It is important that Smart Home technologies and home modifications do not erode the sense of identity of the home environment. However, they must also find a balance between providing the distinction of the public and private space, while not making the resident feel like they are closed off from society” (Guihen, 2013:39). Especially the last notion of being “closed off from society” is a very severe problem that may be caused by cocooning and be facilitated through technology. You may remember I had already mentioned this problem in my last blog “Big Brother is Watching You”. While Smart Home technology may increase the ability of isolated people through increased connectedness (communication technologies, etc) it should not become a substitute for face-to-face contact and further worsen social isolation, which is aligned with several health implication such as and increased possibility of dementia especially in later ages (Guihen, 2013). As Michael Greeson of The Diffusion Group puts it: “With all the information and entertainment at arm’s reach at home, why get out and meet up with a friend when you can chat on Facebook? Why go shopping for a book at Barnes Noble when you can search through a virtually unlimited bookstore like Amazon and never leave your couch?” (Popcorn, 2013).

I think it is important for us to consider the implications of cocooning in combination with Smart Homes on our social interactions. Who want to end up like our two friends in the picture – seeing through screens and isolated from the real world and trapped in our own little bubble? Cocooning to a certain extent may be to our liking and Smart Homes can certainly be to our benefits – but it is important to get the balance right J




California State University, 1995, ‘Cocooning – Future Lifestyle’, accessed: 02.03.2014, available at:

Definition Cocooning: accessed: 01.03.2014, available at

Guihen, B., 2013, ‘Human Issues related to housing design for elderly and Smart Homes‘, Value Ageing, accessed: 02.03.2014, available at:

Haslauer, 2009, ‘Cocooning: Daheimistesdoch am schöneste’, Focus-Money, accessed: 03.03.2014, availbale at:

Lane, R. and Goreman-Murray, A., 2011, ‘Material Geographies of Household Sustainability’, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., accessed: 01.03.2014, available at:

Popcorn, F., 2013. ‘Super Cocooning – Cocooning: It’s back and thanks to tech, it’s bigger’, Faith Popcorn’s Brain Reserve, accessed: 02.03.2014, available at:

Big Brother is watching you


“As technological revolutions increase their social impact, ethical problems increase.”Moor’s observation has several implications for the Smart Home as we know it. While autonomous technology is developing quickly, that is, technology that is able to ‘adapt, learn and make decisions’ (The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2009), our society is faced with several social, legal and ethical issues. This blog is aimed at providing an overview and some implications faced by those issues.

Probably the clearest way to visualize the impacts of Smart Home technology on society or the people living within a Smart Home is by considering the case of elderly assistance or medical supervision via technology at your home place. In order for technology to act as a “Guardian Angel” it has to be ‘built and programmed to monitor and learn the daily behavior of the inhabitants in order to perform context analysis and to detect suspicious deviations from what can be considered to be normal […]’ (Zagler et al., 2008:3). Collected data might end up in the wrong hands and bring with it the threat of extreme surveillance (“Big Brother”) right into your home. This poses a significant issue on ethics as we need to consider: Who has the right over the data and decides what should happen to it? Would it be the subject, the monitoring person/system or the companies that run and maintain the technologies? (The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2009)

Smart Home technology is often seen as a means to automise a significant portion of daily decisions to be made in the home environment.Mäyär&Vadén (2004) call this substitution of human interaction by self-sustained technological implementations the “strong proactivity of technology”. While the technological revolution has not yet allowed for the complete substitutions of humans in the loop, they pose significant emphasis on the “weak proactivity of technology”, indicating that the real problems up to date lie in communication and control issues of technology which asks for the minimization and more effective supervision, while creating a comfortable awareness of the options of control and personalization.

A good example in this case may be a smart fridge: We literally transfer the control over our home supplies to a machine. While it may currently be able to tell you which food has gone off, or what you are running out of, it will soon be able to make orders for you based on your past behaviour and preferences. This may be seen as convenience, but for many it rather indicates a loss of control and autonomy in their home environment. While decisions and procedures are being standardized it may also come with a significant loss of personalization and control. The smart fridge may be easy to manually reprogram but the concept raises two further ethical questions: 1) Does the automation process lead to passivity and social isolation of the inhabitant?  2) May there be situations in which the machine may actually be better able to decide what should be done and be more trusted than an individual, meaning, should there be technologies that cannot be changed by individual influence?

Bierhoff et al. (2009) argue, that the objective of smart technology is to ‘provide tools and services that empower and enable people themselves to address their social, rational, and emotional needs’, supporting the view that shared control over systems is the only way to keep engaged. This social issue is supported by The Royal Academy of Engineering (2009), pointing out the possible social isolation faced especially by vulnerable individuals, as increased technical support may reduce social interactions being necessary. On the other hand it may be seen as enabling technology and an increase of autonomy from other people. This controversy needs to be addressed by ethical research and should not just be left to engineers to be decided upon. Another issue raised by The Royal Academy of Engineering, is the fact that “tricking” may occur. In such instances individuals may be tricked into believing of having social interactions by using familiar voices for smart technology that make them seem as “artificial companions”. As can be seen here and was indicated earlier, smart technologies require transparency and must be understood by its users in order to prevent such social issues from occurring.

What about technologies that cannot be changed by individual influence? The value of autonomous systems can be seen especially in situations where quick decisions are needed (The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2009). Situations like this may be similar to certain learned behaviours individuals develop in order to get out of dangerous situations (take for example a mother taking the child’s hand when crossing the road). Such behaviours are automated and not thought about. For the Smart Home, this may be the security system. Though, what happens in highly complex situations where human experience and judgment may be superior to programmed solutions? Should such automated technologies be able to be shut down?  While failures of technologies are not possible to be extinct entirely, should legislation stop the development of such technologies if their failure rate is minor compared to the one of individuals?

This brings me to my last point regarding the issues arising from Smart Home technology: Legislation. The fast advances in technological developments generate significant policy vacuums, whether they arise from data use and protection or insurance of autonomous technologies that need to be dealt with (The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2009). The first point was already pointed out at the very beginning of this essay, to better grasp the second however, let us consider Smart Cars. Driverless cars are currently developed by companies such as Google. While they seem to have fewer accidents than normal cars, what actually happens if the technology fails? Who will be accountable? Is it the ‘designer, manufacturer, programmer or user’ (The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2009:2)? The government and legislation are so far doing a poor job in being up to date with such important decisions and pose significant insecurity on users which may also decrease the use and adaption of smart technologies as the unproven status represents and unacceptable risk for its users: “Better a known devil than an unknown god” (Zagler et al., 2008:2).

In order to tackle some of the issues mentioned, ethical design of technology is of great importance. According to Zagler et al. (2008), data collection and processing should be carried out locally, and only be sent on if significant deviations of normal behaviour are analysed. They also encourage the design of technology that 1) is transparent, 2) makes the user the master and 3) fights laziness (relating to the notion of empowerment and passiveness). Another important solution pointed out by The Royal Academy of Engineering (2009) is the focus on the specific tasks that needs to be monitored/doneindicating that  onlydata actually needed should be collected. For example: In the medical service of a Smart Home, it may be enough to know that a person fell down and does not get up again, rather than knowing who the exact person is. Technology therefore should focus on the ability to extract the silhouette of a person while saving his/her identity.

Concluding, it is important to see that scientist, ethicists and legislation should all be working on this technological evolution together in order to ensure its ethical and most beneficial employment.



Bierhoff,  vanBerlo, Abascal, Allen, Civit, Fellbaum, Kemppainen, Bitterman, Freitas, Kristiansson (2009), ‘Towards and Inclusive Future: Impact and wider potential of information and communication technologies’, accessed: 13.02.2014, available at:

Mäyär&Vadén (2004), ‘Ethics of Living Technology: Design and Principles of Proactive Home Environment’, accessed: 13.02.2014, available at:

The Royal Academy of Engineering (2009), ‘Autonomous Systems: Social, Legal and Ethical Issues’, accessed: 15.02.2014, available at:

Zagler, Panek and Rauhala, (2008), ‘Ambient Assisted Living Systems – The Conflicts between Technology, Acceptance, Ethics and Privacy’, Vienna University of Technology, Dagstuhl Seminar Proceedings 07462, Assisted Living Systems – Models, Architectures and Engineering Approaches