Some bot to watch over me: new home security gadgets

03/22/2014 12:00 AM

03/21/2014 4:43 PM

For a month now, I have been spying on my apartment.

I have spied in the afternoon, and I have spied late at night. Since I can see most clearly into the living room, my voyeurism has been focused there.

Often I see only an empty room that could use a little art on the walls. Sometimes I catch the cat sleeping on the rug. One night last week, I watched my girlfriend watch TV. My vantage was over her shoulders, as if I were standing behind her, though she had no idea my eyes were trained on her.

Before you call me a stalker, know that my girlfriend has been spying on me, too. When I worked from home a few weeks ago, I received an email that read, “Chew, chew, chew.” It turned out that she could hear and see me munching on a salad from her office — six miles away.

Something called Piper has enabled this self-monitoring. Part of the wave of smart-home products flooding the market, Piper is equipped with a wide-angle camera that allows users to see live video of their homes, from anywhere in the world, on their smartphones. The device also has sensors that detect motion and temperature; a microphone; a siren; and the capability of recording short videos and controlling lights and appliances remotely.

Piper is advertised as a home security and automation device, and it is one of several new or forthcoming products that monitor the home. Others include Canary, a similar camera-equipped security device, and Mother, which uses attachable motion sensors called “cookies” to collect data on things like whether someone has flossed or taken a cholesterol pill (and it nags them if they haven’t).

Companies like Verizon and Time Warner offer monthly subscription packages that promise to create an all-seeing, all-knowing home. Even the humble doorbell has been wired for surveillance: With Doorbot, smartphone users can see who’s at their front door and answer (or not), whether they are at home or across the globe.

Surveillance inside the home isn’t new. Nanny cams have been around since the 1990s, and wealthy homeowners have long had video security systems, while laptops with built-in cameras can be hacked to act as cheap spy cams. But devices like Piper and Canary aim to democratize and even glamorize home surveillance.

Technologically sophisticated, relatively inexpensive (Canary is $199; Piper starts at $239) and alluringly designed in that sleek, Apple-like way, the devices beckon to our tech-obsessed culture. Last year, the makers of Canary raised nearly $2 million during an Indiegogo campaign, a record for the crowdfunding site.

Home-monitoring devices like these are appealing because they are not just smart, but also unobtrusive, said Ayesha Khanna, the founder and co-director of the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group focused on emerging technologies.

“It’s quietly humming away, taking in data,” Khanna said. “You don’t have to do anything. Something that makes your life more convenient, safer and more secure has value.”

But as the monitoring that is now so much a part of public life moves inside the home, one wonders how it will change family dynamics and redefine our sense of private space. As Khanna put it: “It’s important to have some cognizance of the effect on your life and how you should behave around these objects.”

Russell Ure, a Canadian entrepreneur who was one of the creators of Piper, said the device provided homeowners, and apartment dwellers in particular, with valuable security they previously lacked. “People who live in apartments have almost no access to security technology,” he said. “It gives you peace of mind to know what is going on at home.”

So far, most of the people who have lived with this technology have been employees of the companies behind it. One woman who works for Ure told him that her household divided into pro- and anti-surveillance factions. Her mother, who lives with her, “didn’t like the camera there and would turn it away when the daughter went to work,” Ure said. “She said, ‘I don’t want you to see how many soap operas I’m watching.’ ”

Other early adopters similarly remarked that when they first installed Piper, they were uncomfortably aware of its presence, although that feeling faded with time, Ure said. “You get used to it. It becomes part of your furniture.”

I couldn’t help but think about how this technology would affect children, already an exceedingly monitored group. With devices like Piper and Canary, parents can have visual confirmation that their kids arrived home safely from school. But they will also have proof of transgressions that happen at home. What will become of the parents-are-away house party, a teenage rite of passage? Risky Business will have to be reimagined for the Piper era.

Ure has three daughters, one of whom is 17 and still lives at home, and he said Piper gave him a reassuring sense of parental calm. Although his youngest daughter had a very different reaction, he admitted: “She was a bit irritated that we were keeping an eye on her. But she got used to it.”

He added: “She’s quite aware that I could turn the thing on and listen to what’s going on in the house. It’s keeping her honest.”

No parent wants a child smoking pot in the den with a gang of delinquents while he or she is at work. Still, is it a good thing that parents can so effortlessly watch children who are at home and unsupervised?

Torin Monahan, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the co-author of SuperVision, a book about surveillance in society, said that today’s youth were almost inured to being monitored, particularly when it comes to social media.

But the justifications for doing so in this case are questionable, he said, because they are fear-based. And because of that there are developmental implications: “We don’t allow youth as much agency as perhaps they need to develop identities fully apart from their families.”

“Invariably people will spy on family members,” Monahan added. “I worry it could undermine trust relationships in families.”

Adam Sager, a security-industry veteran and one of the creators of Canary, disagrees with that assessment.

“The way we look at it — and we feel strongly about this — we believe Canary brings families and people closer,” Sager said.

Stealth, though, seems to be necessary if the technology is going to work for its intended purposes of home monitoring. How else can you catch the sticky-fingered housekeeper or the dog walker who showed up two hours later than he said he did, as one user discovered?

Andrew Kippen, the head of marketing for Canary, said it was his friend who had caught his dog walker in a lie after using a competing device to determine how long his dog was being walked.

So what did his friend do with the information?

“He ended up firing the guy,” Kippen said.

Secretly keeping tabs on your dog walker is one thing. But is it really spying if the surveillance is done between well-meaning family members? In the month I tested Piper, I kept returning to that question.

My girlfriend and I would joke that we were spying on each other, but neither of us felt the violation of privacy that the term implies. After my initial “Check this out!” period, during which I whipped out my phone in restaurants to give demonstrations to friends, I rarely used Piper’s live video. The device stood ready to alert me to potential catastrophes at home, but was otherwise idle on my desk.

Khanna, the futurist, said she had a similar experience when she and her husband tried iZON, another webcam that works with smartphones, to check on their then-3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son (and the baby sitter) when they were out.

“We used it for a couple of months,” Khanna said. “We checked in a couple of times in the first week, then much less.”

Still, I never reached the point where Piper became part of the furniture, as Ure suggested it would.

Of more immediate concern to me than anything to do with personal data, though, was the fact that I was suddenly on camera. Whenever I was home and my girlfriend was at work or out somewhere else, I never knew when she might switch on Piper’s live video function. And being aware of this, I felt I always had to be camera-ready and self-censoring.

Once, I was startled to learn that she had logged onto Piper at work and accidentally overheard me talking to a florist about Valentine’s Day. I had been sitting a foot from Piper and hadn’t noticed its light turn from green to white. It was a minor breach of privacy, but disconcerting. Even if I did nothing more than type at my desk all day, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be watched while I was doing it.

When I mentioned my concerns to Ure, he predicted that as surveillance devices become more ubiquitous, the home will be redefined.

“Instead of the entire space being private,” he said, “there are going to be public areas in our home.” The room that contains Piper — the living room, in my case — will be considered “family public,” a place where occupants can expect to be on camera.

Worried that he sounded too much like Big Brother selling telescreens, he qualified his statement. Some rooms, he suggested, would always remain private. “There are going to be spaces in our home where cameras never go in,” he said, adding with less conviction, “at least, I hope not.”

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