Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

How to spy on your family from your smartphone

Crumbs of comfort

Smart homes have often caused more bother than they’re worth. So Natasha Loder decided to give her house a sensible intelligence upgrade

Smart homes have often caused more bother than they’re worth. So Natasha Loder decided to give her house a sensible intelligence upgrade

Natasha Loder | December/January 2017

The home of the future was supposed to brim with perceptive devices that knew you better than you knew yourself – right down to the fridge that had restocked itself with milk before you’d run out. Yet though a steady stream of smart devices has arrived – light bulbs, locks, sensors, cameras – many have seemed far from bright. Speak to anyone who has tried to figure out whether the reason they’re stuck in the dark is because of a bug in an app, intermittent Wi-Fi or a malfunctioning smart bulb, and you’ll discover that these new devices have complicated interfaces, behave unpredictably and don’t always play ball with each other. Consumer surveys reveal scepticism about pricey gizmos that often pay scant attention to ease of use.

There is also concern about data security. A 2015 survey of 1,600 consumers in North America by icontrol Networks, a company that provides smart-home technologies, found that 71% of people fear their personal information may be stolen and 64% fear their data will be collected and sold. Rather than owning a Wi-Fi-enabled mushroom brush, about half of consumers simply want smart products that help them keep closer tabs on their nearest and dearest. Seventy-two percent of 25- to 34-year-olds would feel more at ease if they could check up on their parents’ and grandparents’ homes.

Luckily, Sen.se, a company based in Paris, offers a halfway house, as it were, on the road to the networked dwellings of the future. (MarketsAndMarkets suggests that the smart-home business will be valued at $122 billion by 2022.) It supplies a collection of cheap sensors, known as “cookies”, that can be stuck onto all kinds of objects around the home. These gather intelligence and send reports back to your phone or computer. “The time has come,” proclaims the marketing blurb, “for devices to learn to live with us instead of us learning to live with them.”

Amen to that, I thought. About to go on a long trip, I decided to keep track of everything while I was away. The cookies, which are slightly smaller than the lozenge-shaped Biscoff biscuits Europeans take with their coffee, contain an accelerometer and a thermometer. Powered by a long-lasting lithium battery, they stay in touch with a base station, known as the “mother” (costing, along with four cookies, $290). The peanut, a new generation of sensor, is being launched imminently– it is smaller, will not require a base station and will be priced at $29 a piece.

Each cookie was given a specific task. Those in the children’s beds generated nightly and weekly sleep reports (bedtime, waking and quality of sleep). I could also find out at any hour if the bedrooms were too warm or cold. Cookies were also placed on the front door, the iPad, the electric toothbrush, the watering can, the fridge and the piano to record every movement. My husband rather gamely submitted to this surveillance.

Halfway around the world, I received a feed of notifications telling me when these objects moved; an analytics tool gave me a snapshot of the comings and goings over the course of a week. The cookie on the watering can had been instructed to send me an email if it had not been picked up for more than five minutes every afternoon (I had a newly planted garden that needed tending). It came as no surprise to discover the iPad was more popular than the piano. Sen.se has many suggestions for how to use the cookies, from alerting you that the children have returned home to warning you that valuable items are on the move. Many Sen.se customers want to be able to check that an elderly relative is taking his tablets regularly and keeping to his routine. Users will find countless other possibilities. Best of all, the data belong to them alone.

It was comforting to learn that everything was ticking along quite nicely without me. The cookie on the door told me if my family had got home a little late and would be rushing to make supper, so they might not appreciate a phone call. The technology could have allowed me to stalk a child that was up too late on the iPad, but this seemed like spying and I worried about being too nosy. I made a concerted effort not to be too intrusive or judgmental, but it is hard to avoid this when so much information is instantly available. I realised that, had I not had so many insights into life at home but so little opportunity to intervene in it, my anxieties about being absent might have been allayed quicker. But the excellent analytics have already had long-term consequences for family policy. I now have hard data for the next battle over bedtime. The eldest needs almost nine hours, the youngest needs ten, and I’ve got the charts to prove it.

Once, though, the cookies failed me. My sleep report indicated that one child had been waking in the middle of the night and not returning to sleep. I fretted that he missed me, and was tossing and turning in bed. I felt guilty. Later I learned he had been sneaking into my spot in the double bed. He was sleeping just fine, just not where he was supposed to be. A smarter cookie than his mother.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.