White Noise from the White Goods? Privacy by Design for Ambient Domestic Computing

Forthcoming in Edwards, L. Schafer, B. and Harbinja, E, (Eds.) Future Law, EUP.

26 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2016 Last revised: 11 Jan 2019

See all articles by Lachlan Urquhart

Lachlan Urquhart

University of Edinburgh - School of Law; Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute

Date Written: January 3, 2019


Updated in Jan 2019.

Ambient domestic computing systems have moved from science fiction to the lab to everyday life. They have become mundane, unremarkable artefacts in the home and in this chapter, we examine why this shift matters for privacy regulation, both conceptually and empirically. We’ll examine how smart homes have been envisioned in science fiction literature and film, both positively and negatively. We consider vintage visions of post-desktop computing, starting with Weiser’s classic Ubicomp and moving through the years, towards the current term ‘du jour’: the internet of things (IoT). The IoT can easily be dismissed as yet more tech industry marketing hype, like so many examples before e.g. blockchain, big data analytics, cloud computing, Web 2.0. However, we dig deeper by unpacking how the IoT is framed both in technical and regulatory literature, in conjunction with how experts from technology law and design understand it in practice. Key to this is considering what harms could befall the humans left in the feedback loop living with smart domestic environments. Drawing on the regulatory solution of ‘privacy by design’ (PbD), we assess how computing professionals have been drawn into the regulatory fray. Instead of just functionally enabling the IoT through ubiquitous networking, ambient interfaces and cloud storage, they now also have a raft of wider human values to assimilate in design. Responsible research and innovation agendas seek to create a future of more trustworthy, secure, and accountable domestic IoT. However, the practical role of the computing community in both regulating and creating smart homes people actually want to live in is far from clear, but resolving this is a pressing concern.

To unpack this discussion, in Part I we examine the emergence of the domestic IoT, in science fiction literature, film and computing research, particularly in the realm of human computer interaction (HCI). In Part II, we look at the regulatory challenges of IoT, particularly drawing on a series of 13 expert interviews with technologists and lawyers. We focus on various regulatory issues, but primarily privacy and data protection aspects of managing flows of personal information and obtaining user consent. In Part III we introduce the solution of privacy by design, considering its legal basis, concerns about the concept and how it currently manifests in practice. We conclude with reflections on the contemporary nature of PbD for the IoT, considering the need to avoid more dystopian smart home futures.

Keywords: internet of things; ambient intelligence; science fiction; gikii; ubicomp; technology futures; privacy by design; human computer interaction

Suggested Citation

Urquhart, Lachlan, White Noise from the White Goods? Privacy by Design for Ambient Domestic Computing (January 3, 2019). Forthcoming in Edwards, L. Schafer, B. and Harbinja, E, (Eds.) Future Law, EUP., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2865738 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2865738

Lachlan Urquhart (Contact Author)

University of Edinburgh - School of Law

Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh, EH8 9YL
United Kingdom

Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute ( email )

University of Nottingham Innovation Park
Triumph Road
Nottingham, NG7 2TU
United Kingdom

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