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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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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.

"Well, there may be a reason why they call them 'Mac' trucks! Windows machines will not be trucks." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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