“Candle is a challenge to the industry to do better,” says Tijmen Schep, the Dutch inventor behind a privacy friendly smart home concept. “It’s a challenge, like a slap in the face of Google and all those companies like, ‘Hey why don’t do you do it differently?’”
Schep, Candle’s founder and lead designer, calls himself an “ethical innovator”. He’s an enthusiastic man whose house is kitted out with smart home tech but who is passionately wary of the impact tech in the built environment has on humans.
Candle launched in October as a prototype to respond to the idea that, in order to have smart home devices, you have to give up your privacy. “It’s nonsense. It’s just that nobody designs them well,” Schep says.
His criticism comes at a time when internet of things devices in the home and at work are growing rapidly. The build to rent market in the UK is booming, and with it, integrated IoT devices that give convenience to residents and efficiency and value to landlords. But that’s coupled with growing concern about the security of these devices – most recently with the National Cyber Security Centre this week warning smart camera users about the risk of criminals accessing their devices if they haven’t taken the right precautions.
Candle is still at a concept stage: it doesn’t have products for sale (Schep says discussions with potential investors are ongoing), but its website provides instructions on how to make a range of DIY smart home devices. This includes shopping lists, instructions and open source code that anyone can use (building the central Candle Controller requires five bits of kit from electronics shops and costs about $50 to assemble). That isn’t a problem for Schep, however. His goal with Candle was to start a conversation and challenge the industry to re-think privacy. “Making it a commercial product is like the icing on the cake,” he adds.
In both its DIY designs and future products, Candle aims to tackle two broad issues with smart home technology. The first is data privacy, and Schep questions some of the basic assumptions about the tech that powers smart homes. “Voice control is so fantastic to have, but it’s also something you don’t need a cloud connection for to work,” he says. Instead, devices can work on the edge, rather than the cloud, which means that data is stored locally. The tech available – a single board computer called Raspberry Pi – is powerful enough to make local devices as fast, if not faster than cloud-based devices. Users have the option to connect devices to their network, but that can be turned off at any time without losing functionality.
Schep argues that connecting smart devices to Wi-Fi networks – which the vast majority of devices require – means less transparency and user control over where that data is shared; the device does all its communication autonomously. There is also a greater risk of security breaches, Schep says, pointing to a bug called Heartbleed that, since 2014, has left hundreds of thousands of internet-connected devices – and millions of people’s personal data – vulnerable to leaks.
The centralisation of cloud-based devices also means that devices rely on the entire system working. “It means if the cloud service goes down, for example, your pet feeder might no longer work, which happened last week,” Schep says, referring to Petnet, whose recent week-long systems outage affected some customers relying on it to automatically feed their pets.
The main concern, however, is the one that always crops up when personal data is discussed: who ultimately gets hold of it and how is it used? In the US, for example, NPR reported in 2018 that data brokers – companies that ‘vacuum’ data and build profiles of individuals based on everything from race to TV habits, which they might freely share online – supply the insurance industry with that information. Billions of records were used to build health profiles of people based on non-medical information, which could then be used to set insurance rates.
For Schep, the fact that data from something as innocuous as a smart bulb could be used to build a profile of a person’s sleeping patterns and fed into a larger data set about their habits, is cause for concern. “People will become more and more aware that the data they share will bite them in the ass,” he says.
The second broad issue Candle tries to tackle is the social impact of devices that monitor people. “Technology innovators are very good at selling benefits, but they don’t think about the long-term effects of technology,” Schep says.
While there are smart home products available that are totally local – IKEA makes several of these – Candle makes a point of responding to “horror stories” around how abusers have used smart home devices to stalk their victims. The domestic violence charity Refuge last year reported that 72% of its service users had experienced abuse through technology, which includes being monitored and tracked in their own home. As a result, Candle allows users to turn off data collection and even fake – or “sculp”, as the website calls it – their data.
Schep uses a light-hearted example of planning a surprise birthday party to illustrate how it works: the devices allow users to manipulate collected data – including door lock logs, energy use or CO2 levels – to make it seem like no one had visited the party planning session. But whether it’s something as innocent as planning a party, or as serious as avoiding being stalked, Schep says: “This is about being sensitive to how people are actually living in homes and that you might not always want to record everything.
“There are a lot of good reasons for not wanting to know everything all the time.”
Somebody’s watching me
“If you go to the humanities, they’ll talk your ears off about how these systems are damaging,” he says, adding that tech has so far failed to engage with the issue. A 2014 UCL study found that parent-child relationships that allowed the child “appropriate autonomy” were part of the foundation for “lifelong well-being”, with the study supporting parental programmes that promote “high levels of care and low levels of psychological control”. The concern for Candle is how smart homes, creating a sense of constant surveillance, are already affecting those dynamics within households.
A similar issue the industry needs to tackle is the impact on the workplace: will installing excessive monitoring devices affect how employees work? Will they be less likely to say no to their boss or take fewer risks in order to play it safe?
In discussing how, for example, build to rent landlords integrate smart home systems, Schep says there should be some thought about what people are comfortable with, which will vary. He says: “It’s an issue of trust and complex power dynamics, and we have to be sensitive to that with devices that are acceptable to both parties.
“People tend to underestimate the effect of what feeling measured has on people. Even if you say it’s totally anonymised, it’s not about that. It’s also about how it makes people feel, and if you don’t trust it, it says something about your relationship with your landlord.”
If you’re going to install these devices, he says, data should, at the very least, be aggregated and anonymised. For example, that might mean having a daily average for how power is used, rather than a second-by-second report. The trade-off will be less opportunity for efficiency for the landlord, but, as with all things in Candle, this is a starting point for a wider conversation within the industry. Where should it sacrifice efficiency for the sake of human wellbeing?
Is there demand for privacy?
The success of products like Google Home and Amazon Echo suggests that people are happy to give up some of their privacy – or at least put that privacy at risk – for convenience. But Schep says he expects demand for privacy to grow in the same way the organic food market grew.
“In the 90s, that was a very small market. Nowadays, you go to a supermarket and it’s totally normal to find ecological food. All this took 10 or 20 years for the market to explode and grow, but now it’s an incredible market,” he says.
As awareness around privacy grows, more people will be drawn to edge devices over cloud ones. If that demand does grow, the challenge for the industry is to meet that demand with more products – and more convenient products. Although privacy-friendly options do exist, competition with household names that are easy to set up is fierce.
That comes back to Candle’s original goal, which wasn’t necessarily to build a product itself, but to start a conversation and enable anyone to take on its challenge. “We’re pretty sure something’s going to happen, and we’re just going to find out how,” Schep says. “If it’s us, if it’s IKEA or someone else, we can help. It’s all good – as long as we can buy this stuff.”
After all, at its heart, Candle is an ideal designed for the built environment. Will tech drive the next generation of spaces, or will it enable spaces driven by human needs? That is the Candle challenge.