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Is "Lab of Things" big science or big brother? The answer remains to be seen

Talk about ironic timing.  Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) was just slammed with accusations that it is collaborating with the U.S. government to promote massive spying efforts, and today the company announced the availability of its "Lab of Things", a "near real-time" effort to track your home utility usage.

First, what is Lab of Things?  Lab of Things is Microsoft's latest cloud-based expansion to its cloud-connected smart meter project, which it dubs "HomeOS" (originally code-named "Hohm").  Both Microsoft and Google Inc. (GOOG) are looking to slowly build up userbases of households with internet-connected smart meters.

The premise, in theory, is to have better control of your utilities by leveraging remote controls and/or by monitoring usage to try to cut your power footprint/expenses.

Microsoft describes:

It is no secret that homes are ever-increasing hotbeds of new technology such as set-top boxes, game consoles, wireless routers, home automation devices, tablets, smart phones, and security cameras. This innovation is breeding heterogeneity and complexity that frustrates even technically-savvy users’ attempts to improve day-to-day life by implementing functionality that uses these devices in combination.

For instance, it is impossible for most users to view video captured by their security camera on their smartphone when they are not at home....To simplify the management of technology and to simplify the development of applications in the home, we are developing an "operating system" for the home.

In other words, Microsoft wants you to hook up your household security cameras (or your Xbox One's 1080p camera, perhaps?) to its "big cloud".  As an incentive it's offering Lab of Things -- a slick SDK that gives you functions to analyze big data sets.

If this all sounds a little Orwellian, it might not just be paranoia speaking.

As early as 2009 security researchers showed in whitepapers [PDF] that monitoring home power and water usage can reveal what times you were home, what times you cook, what times you shower, etc.

The Obama administration, which has committed to an unprecedented campaign of domestic spying, calls "smart meters" a top priority.  

Rollouts have already begun in many states.  Unfortunately, if you want to remove your usage data from prying eyes, you may not have that right; in some incidents citizens have been arrested for trying to block smart meter installation.

But while a smart grid may allow minor tracking of citizens and lesser invasions of privacy, the Home OS promises a much more dangerous security risk, literally watching your household if you let it.  

For those thinking of inviting big brother in, it is important to recall that recent leaks have indicated that Microsoft may be giving the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) open access to its SkyDrive cloud storage platform.  According to leaked documents, Microsoft also worked the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to circumvent it encryption and other security mechanisms in its Outlook web chat and Skype telephony/video-calling service.

Microsoft vigorously defends its cooperation in the spying, stating:

We have clear principles which guide the response across our entire company to government demands for customer information for both law enforcement and national security issues.

First, we take our commitments to our customers and to compliance with applicable law very seriously, so we provide customer data only in response to legal processes. Second, our compliance team examines all demands very closely, and we reject them if we believe they aren’t valid.  Third, we only ever comply with orders about specific accounts or identifiers, and we would not respond to the kind of blanket orders discussed in the press over the past few weeks, as the volumes documented in our most recent disclosure clearly illustrate. To be clear, Microsoft does not provide any government with blanket or direct access to SkyDrive,, Skype or any Microsoft product.

Finally when we upgrade or update products legal obligations may in some circumstances require that we maintain the ability to provide information in response to a law enforcement or national security request. There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely. That’s why we’ve argued for additional transparency that would help everyone understand and debate these important issues.

Putting video of your house on the internet, where any hacker (or government agent) has access to it is an inherent risky proposition -- particularly given the recent revelations which indicates Microsoft has eagerly complied with domestic spying efforts, where rivals like Google have bucked the government data demands.

Kinect 1080p
Microsoft is encouranging you to hook your home cameras up to its always-on cloud.

Lab of Things may have some attractive uses -- as long as you keep it out of the house.  If you set up sensor networks, it can assist you in compiling data.  Hobby climatologists and sociologists may gets some interesting mileage out of this angle.

For those who want to check out Lab of Things it's available here in beta form.  But don't say we didn't warn you. (The website for Lab of Things appears to be currently down, but keep your eyes peeled.)

Sources: Microsoft Lab of Things, The Next Web

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Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By BifurcatedBoat on 7/16/2013 3:32:47 PM , Rating: 5
A security camera for the NSA in every home.

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By kleinma on 7/16/2013 3:35:54 PM , Rating: 2
If you have any sort of smartphone, then you are already bringing a potentially always on, always listening, internet connected device into your home, and carrying it everywhere you go, for everything you do.

Google probably knows how many times you crap a day, and what games you play while doing it.

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By Mitch101 on 7/16/2013 3:46:20 PM , Rating: 4
Bets to how long before some freeware app is on the web?

Innovation: Looking through walls with WiFi

A new technology based on WiFi would enable us to see through walls. The founders say the device could be attached into cellular phones and use the same wireless antenna. Using the gadget you can see bad guys hiding in a room like Superman’s X-ray vision
There is at least one consumer TTWS device on the market already, STI's Rex Plus, an $80+ device that can be placed against a wall/door in order to sound an alarm when someone approaches the opposite side of the wall/door.

At the University of Washington, researchers have developed a related technology, WiSee, a Wi-Fi-based gesture sensing system that duplicates the functioning of sensor-based motion detection systems like Leap Motion and Microsoft Kinect without the sensing area limitations.

By Kefner on 7/21/2013 4:23:02 PM , Rating: 2
Didn't Batman already do this to catch the Joker??? lol

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By Mitch101 on 7/16/2013 3:48:21 PM , Rating: 2
I have to wonder the people worried about Kinect 2.0 do they have tape covering both camera's on their phone? I tend to check my phone wearing very little and the phone goes into every room.

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By OnyxNite on 7/16/2013 5:06:39 PM , Rating: 5
How often is your phone's camera pointed at anything useful when you DONT want a picture of it? I'd imagine the vast majority of the time cell phone cameras are pointed toward the inside of your pocket. When your using it the front camera probably just sees your face and the back a small section of the floor. That's a big difference from a camera watching your living room all day.
My laptop at work has a camera on it and I have a piece of tape over it. My personal laptop has a camera and I keep the lid shut when I'm not using it.
Maybe I am paranoid, but there is no way I'd put a Kinect 2.0 in my house and recent news stories indicate to me that I'm the one being realistic and those who think my actions are paranoid are at best naive or at worst downright ignorant.

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By kyuuketsuki on 7/16/2013 6:24:14 PM , Rating: 2
Or maybe you're just paranoid. Hey, maybe your work laptop's camera is infrared and can see right through that piece of tape? Yep, you thought you were safe but they've been watching you the WHOLE TIME.

By Mitch101 on 7/16/2013 6:40:55 PM , Rating: 2
Shhh he can hear you. Your going to give us away.

I think he knows were watching him?

By Solandri on 7/16/2013 8:55:33 PM , Rating: 4
It's not quite as paranoid as you think. Though it's mostly young, nubile women who have the most to worry about.

By BZDTemp on 7/17/2013 3:23:40 AM , Rating: 3
Hey, maybe your work laptop's camera is infrared and can see right through that piece of tape?

I think you're mistaking how infrared light works with some Hollywood made up tech. A infrared camera is simply captures other wavelengths than those we can see with our own eyes, so if it is blocked with tape it won't work.

Now to the paranoid bit :-)

I'm guessing that like most people you lock you're front door at night just as you most likely lock your car door. Yet, as most people you properly haven't ever had your home burglarized or a car stolen and most likely it will never happen. So the question is are you paranoid?

By Gnarr on 7/17/2013 7:16:01 AM , Rating: 2
Just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you

By LRonaldHubbs on 7/17/2013 11:47:33 AM , Rating: 2
My laptop at work has a camera on it and I have a piece of tape over it.

A lot of the people that I work with did the same thing. One guy even colored the tape black with a Sharpie so it blends in. I opted to just disable the camera in the BIOS. As far as the OS is aware, the thing doesn't even exist.

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By althaz on 7/16/2013 6:40:59 PM , Rating: 5
Not sure why this got voted down, it's absolutely true. Not to mention Google themselves have said that the entire point of Android is to collect user data (spoiler alert, that's why it's "free")...

By NellyFromMA on 7/17/2013 12:51:50 PM , Rating: 2
Quit spreading truth or be banned

By jRaskell on 7/17/2013 5:57:26 PM , Rating: 1
What exactly are you claiming to be true here? That somebody is regularly spying on people via their phone's microphone and camera? Or just that it's conceivably possible?

If it's the latter, no argument here.

If it's the former... I really don't even know where to start poking holes into that crackpot idea.

By Ammohunt on 7/17/2013 1:25:38 PM , Rating: 2
Google probably knows how many times you crap a day, and what games you play while doing it.

Wow! That explains all the adds for fiber i have been seeing in my web browsing.

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By Argon18 on 7/16/13, Rating: -1
RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By FaaR on 7/17/2013 8:38:44 AM , Rating: 2
Obama? It was Bush Jr. who started warrantless wiretapping of americans and en masse data collection from internet switches and so on (post-seven-eleven, in the name of "protecting" the US from "terrorists".)

Bill Clinton wanted encryption chips with government backdoors built into them in every new PC (look up the clipper chip, if you're too young to remember.)

Bush Sr. and Reagan would probably have been on the same Orwellian power-grab train as already mentioned presidents if it wasn't for the fact that they pre-dated the home PC, smart/cell phone and internet era.

American politicians love to abuse power. It's systematic, it's not just Obama, and if you seriously believe otherwise you're doing yourself a disservice. Just read up on (sometimes recent) history to educate yourself. Power abuse on a massive scale has a very very long history in the US, going back to the 1950s at least with secret medical tests on prisoners, poor black people and so on to check the effects of syphilis, radiation on human beings and so on.

RE: Unfortunately you won't be the only one
By NellyFromMA on 7/17/2013 12:52:42 PM , Rating: 2
Power abuse actually isn't exclusive to America.

By FaaR on 7/17/2013 1:01:46 PM , Rating: 2
True, gov't abuse isn't exclusive to the US, but like Texas hats, you murricans just do it bigger than most everybody else.

By NellyFromMA on 7/17/2013 12:49:12 PM , Rating: 2
Google Glasses are ugly and intrusive in public. This forum loves it.

Microsoft's product is intrusive in private. This forum hates it.

Moral of story: If Google was behind Kinect, the majority of DT would be fine with it.

A pretty simple solution here
By FITCamaro on 7/17/2013 7:28:26 AM , Rating: 2
Don't use it.

RE: A pretty simple solution here
By Schrag4 on 7/17/2013 10:07:09 AM , Rating: 4
That solution is unacceptable for far too many. A good portion of our society not only would give up liberty for security, they would give up liberty and security to be entertained. This is disturbing because they are what's allowing such intrusions to gradually creep into every aspect of our lives. As long as a product or service provides some little convenience or entertainment value, they'll eat it up even if it lets the govt (or potential burglars) keep tabs on them. The "it'll never happen to me" crowd only learn the hard way.

By Monkey's Uncle on 7/17/2013 2:17:55 PM , Rating: 2
If they are stupid enough to allow it, they will get exactly what they deserve.

The sad part of it all is that when these folks get burned by this, we will have to put up with their boo-hoo stories crying foul when their civil rights are stomped on by greedy corporations and totalitarian governments.

Factually challenged press release
By jnemesh on 7/17/2013 12:05:28 PM , Rating: 2
"For instance, it is impossible for most users to view video captured by their security camera on their smartphone when they are not at home."

Bull****! MOST security DVRs currently on the market offer remote access from PCs, Smartphones, and tablets at this point, and ALL IP cameras offer this as well!

Tell me again why I need to hook into your BS system again Microsoft?

By FITCamaro on 7/17/2013 12:34:23 PM , Rating: 2
Because racecar.

Nearly impossible?
By spamreader1 on 7/16/2013 3:39:02 PM , Rating: 2
Uh Sams Club has a few cameras that are very easy to set up to view from your phone for just a few hundred bucks, some have IR, and motion detection notifications that email you pictures as things move. Very easy to set up too.

Spy solution
By jtemplin on 7/16/2013 5:39:59 PM , Rating: 2
To solve the spy issue with the meters...Just average usage into 12 hour bins that span equal proportion of sleep/wake time or sleep+work/wake time. Scrubbing the temporal resolution from the data should prevent the problem put forth in the 2009 white paper.

While that will prevent short-term spikes in usage from being linked to any specific time, long-term changes or increases due to say powerful lighting or a secret kiddieporn server farm would of course still come up as a redflag ;)

By Monkey's Uncle on 7/17/2013 8:42:45 AM , Rating: 2
No. Freaking. Way.

since Obama is already
By overlandpark4me on 7/18/2013 1:39:48 AM , Rating: 2
hijacked my webcam and emails, why not. If I'm going to let that tard rape me, I guess I should let him have the happy ending. Just like his boy toy college days.

Holy crap ...
By InsGadget on 7/22/2013 7:45:16 PM , Rating: 2
The tinfoil hat crowd is strong here. You guys seriously need to stop imagining government agents care at all what you do or who you are. I mean, really. It's funny, and sad, that people are this paranoid.

No one is forcing you to use this product. If it scares you, then stay away. BUT IF YOU DO USE IT, just like the Xbox360 and any other product that might have a webcam or some other sensor, I PROMISE YOU HAVE NOTHING WORRY ABOUT. Seriously. Unless you are into child pron or terrorism, you literally have nothing to worry about.

Idiots. All of you. Including this author for this paranoid drivel. But this is DailyTech, and if you don't take things with a grain of salt around here, there's no hope for you.

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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