Getting spooked by the Internet of Things

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As our homes get more automated, we’re delegating more and more tasks over to machines. And the machines would never hurt us… right? There’s nothing to worry about? Today I got a taste of what could soon become a regular phenomenon when all of our gadgets are internet connected: It was my very own HAL 9000 moment.

I was sitting at home, typing away to bring the latest technology and gadget news like you’d expect when gradually I noticed that I was sweating more. I noticed that a few minutes earlier I had subconsciously switched on a seldom-used fan (I live in Britain). Why was it so warm?

I reached over towards the radiator and to my surprise it was scorchingly warm: Almost too hot to touch.

“WTF?!”, I thought. It’s September 5th… and in any case my thermostat had been switched off since April. Why was my central heating kicking into overdrive?

Almost a year ago now I got a Tado wifi thermostat installed and it is one of the devices that I’d swear by. I could describe it as life changing, and only be accused of mild hyperbole – for the past year I’ve never woken up in a cold house. It’s brilliant.

So it was a bit of a shock to see it misbehaving like this. I logged on to the Tado website to check that I wasn’t going mad. Nope – somehow it had been switched on, put into manual mode and cranked up to 25 degrees celsius.

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At this point I started to feel a little creeped out: My thermostat isn’t just connected to my home, but is also connected to the internet. Was I being hacked? Had someone got my password? Had someone got into Tado’s systems and cranked all users up? Imagine the havoc the latter scenario would cause: All of that electricity and gas required could lead to huge power cuts en masse. Who was controlling my heating?!

At the other end of the scale, it could have been as simple as a pocket dial. The Tado app was on my iPhone which is in my pocket: Is it conceivably that I could have inadvertently rolled it around enough to switch to the app, power on the heating and crank it up?

After calling support, it emerged that I should have paid more attention to the press release Tado sent out yesterday. The company has launched a free new service for new and existing customers called “Tado Care”, which “detects malfunctions well in advance, helps with troubleshooting any error messages, and directly connects you to an engineer if necessary.”

Clever stuff – and the company has also updated its apps to allow even more detailed reviewing of temperature measurements and other events relating to the thermostat. What I missed though was that as part of this Tado is giving customers a free boiler check before the winter – which entails maxing out the system and checking that it still heats.

As a wave of relief flowed through me, and as I wiped beads of sweat from my forehead it made me think: This is just the beginning. Are we about to lose even more control over our devices to the hive-minds in the cloud? Should we be surprised in a few years time if our connected washing machines detect a fault, call for support and the first we hear of it is when the engineer turns up at our front door to fix it? Are we finally only a short time away from the fabled “internet fridge” becoming not only a reality, but a device that will re-order our shopping and get it delivered to us automatically?

What was spooky about the Tado boiler check was that it was completely automatic, and that I didn’t get explicitly warned (the press release didn’t name a date and time to expect it). We already know what a pain it is when you shut down Windows and it has to install updates before it powers off – but what when this affects more critical devices? Will we really be sitting in darkness whilst our wifi lightbulbs reboot with the latest firmware?

Whilst these products will no doubt be technologically astounding, it is important that device makers don’t forget the psychological element: Whilst automation may be better and more effective than relying on human beings, if connected home products are to be truly embraced and not treated like HAL 9000, it is important not to creep your customers out!

James O’Malley