Empowering Privacy in the Connected Home – Communal Use of Smart Technologies

This article was published in the 2021 yearbook of the CDT in Cyber Security at the University of Oxford.

The latest wave of internet-connected smart home technologies promises convenience and control over a diverse network of different systems, such as appliances, utilities, and entertainment devices.

Striking the balance between convenience and control proves to be a minefield for product designers. Firstly, the data needs of these technologies amplify concerns over improper data collection and processing practices, highlighting a power imbalance between users and manufacturers. Secondly, convenience and control favour specific practices of use that manifest in related power differentials among household members. Additionally, devices are sometimes utilised for coercive control or domestic abuse.  

These are issues of information and interpersonal privacy that surface in the home. However, due to the rapid evolution of technology, the nature of these issues remains under-explored. To fill in this research gap, we ask: `\rqmain’ Because privacy is a concept that invites many different definitions and interpretations, the thesis adopts an exploratory and inductive approach. It approaches the overarching research question in four steps: (1) 34 semi-structured interviews inquiring people about their internet-connected and smart device usage practices; (2) a six-month ethnographic study of six households’ experiences with smart home devices; (3) a conceptual framework to position emerging findings for research and design; and (4) four case studies that demonstrate the applicability of this framework to privacy in smart homes.

Inductive thematic analysis of interview data provided insights into the ways in which technology use in the home was communal. Building on these insights and their relationship to privacy, we chose a grounded theory approach to analyse and present our ethnographic data. Sensitising concepts from ethnomethodology provided focus and perspectives on the establishment of communal use. Key findings include (1) fluid divisions of labour (planned and unplanned) that contributed to the construction of roles with respect to devices; (2) the ways in which household members’ interactions contribute to a sense of normalcy (e.g. appropriate use) and to the management of relationships inside and outside the home; (3) that household members sometimes articulated this normalcy in rules to highlight expectations of use and everyday considerations of privacy. We used conceptual framework analysis to link these insights with salient concepts from existing literature on privacy for smart technologies. The framework offered an additional agentic perspective and sensitising concepts to inform innovation in research and design. The case studies drew on the framework to discuss strengths and weaknesses of research contributions and policy initiatives.

The insights gained from the study offer implications for data protection regulations along with academic debates on interpersonal power imbalances in the home.

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