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  • 05.03.17

The First Murder Mystery For The Smart Home Age

What happens when a connected device records a crime?

The First Murder Mystery For The Smart Home Age
[Photo: Samantha Mitchell/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images]

An infrared sensor spots movement on your back porch. Is it an intruder? Is it your kid sneaking in past curfew? Or is it just a raccoon?

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With products like Amazon’s new Echo Look camera, the home is becoming a surveillance state in which services silently watch and listen to your every move. And yet, plenty of details slip through the cracks of all this sensor-driven artificial intelligence. 

It’s a topic explored by artist Luke Munn in Monitor. Monitor is a fictional story based upon the real account of an Arkansas man who is under investigation after a friend died in his hot tub–all while an Amazon Echo listened on.

Mann’s fictional retelling unfolds on a pseudo desktop. In the middle of the page, you see the time tick by through the night. And on the right, you see updates from products like the Amazon Echo, Nest thermostat, Perfect Drink (smart bartending system), and the Balboa Worldwide App (a monitor for hot tubs).

Read the full work here. [Image: Luke Munn]
Featured on Prosthetic Knowledge, Monitor’s evening starts out innocuously enough. The Nest thermostat reminds you it’s time to change a battery. ESPN keeps you apprised to the score of the Knicks Rockets game. Then phone calls are made. Sensors trip on the porch, meaning people come over. And drinks, like rum and Cokes and manhattans, begin to flow. The music on the Echo is cranked from 1 to 10. Suddenly, we have a real deal party on our hands. By 11:35 p.m., booze, music, and the hot tub reach their peak.

When suddenly, at 12:19 a.m., the filter clogs.

There’s motion in the patio, the garage, and the patio again. The SmartWater Reader reports a massive 90 gallons of water used in the last hour. And if I squint, I can see a purposeful murder or accidental death take place–and an ensuing, panicked cover-up.

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Munn built Monitor after Arkansas authorities asked Amazon to share a customer’s Echo data in relation to the aforementioned real-life investigation. “Though the request was denied [editor note–it was later permitted!], this artwork acts as if it was accepted, using ‘smart home’ notifications to extrapolate from an evening’s events: a few friends, a few drinks, a floating body,” he explains on his site. “In doing so, it explores the data these objects possess, and how it may be used or abused.” 

Of course, “abuse” is a real possibility by authorities digging through your life for real dirt. I saw a murder unfold in this piece only because I was looking for a murder. If I hadn’t been looking for a crime, would I have spotted one? Probably not. Just as easily, a few friends came over, got too drunk, and someone puked in the hot tub. 

But ultimately, what’s so frightening about smart home-era surveillance isn’t just that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple regularly supply data to warrant-holding authorities. It’s that all of these companies want so dearly to identify and predict our future needs, too.

In this sense, it’s remotely feasible that Amazon could spot–or even anticipate–a domestic murder, just like a Google can predict flu outbreaks with relative certainty. However, if that’s the case, where do we as customers relinquish our rights to privacy, especially when these systems so often abstract but a small, vague, sensor-slice of data from the real event? Or put differently: What happens to the falsely accused when machines are collecting unprecedented levels of circumstantial evidence? 

There is no immediate answer to any of this stuff, of course, which is why it’s such rich fodder for artistic statements like this one–and why security experts recommend that you take that Amazon Echo, unplug it from the wall, and toss it in the nearest hot tub. 

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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