Empty Home Syndrome

By Joanna Roughton.

This week Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, launched a new cyber-security strategy for the UK.

He announced £1.9bn in extra funding, with new, very clever, highly computer-literate spooks soon to be hired to help him spend it all.

The biggest threat, he told 4,000 Microsoft workers in East London, was likely to be a state actor. Nobody mentioned Russia, but Moscow and Beijing are clearly in the frame.

And what mischief might they be up to? NHS databases, the National Grid, air traffic control. All vulnerable.

Another vulnerability too. The home. Specifically, the ‘internet of things’ – the next generation of world wide web penetration into ordinary lives, which leave futurologists speaking in hushed and reverential tones.

Experts asked to comment on Mr Hammond’s initiative made clear that the ‘internet of things’ made the places where we live especially apt for exploitation.

This is fascinating. We are used to the idea of government cyber attackers conducting economic and military espionage, trying to hack into Pentagon computers, maybe even the phone records of public sector employees.

Now the home is on the front line of the cold war in cyberspace. Cameras set up to help householders keep an eye on things might, instead, be used by a foreign power to keep an eye on householders.

At the risk of hyperbole, a pattern is emerging here. Recently, I wrote about the lengths home delivery firms are going to in order to ensure packages make it to their intended recipients.

But the notion that the home is newly susceptible to the predations of foreign spy agencies takes things to a new level.

The key point is that the vulnerability that might be exploited is presented as a problem with cameras and computers. In reality the problem is one of empty homes. The ‘internet of things’ is all about how we can remotely control our home – the fridge, central heating and the rest of it – when we are not there.

The ‘internet of things’ is a sympton of a new epidemic.

Let’s call it Empty House Syndrome.

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In a world of working mothers, homes have never been emptier for longer.

In a world of growing holiday home ownership, homes have never been emptier for longer.

In a world where the fashion for solitary living – only partly a function of rising rates of separation – homes have never been emptier for longer.

Never before in human history have the dwelling places of so many of our fellow citizens been devoid of humanity for so long.

Empty Home Syndrome. You heard it here first.

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