Home & Office

I just watched a robot that protects your privacy and I'm mesmerized

Do you trust your robot vacuum, your Ring camera - or any smart home device, really - not to spy on you? This robotic camera creates a mask around your house. So why am I still worried?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

That looks effective.

Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNET

We've become used to giving ourselves away.

We give away our data. We even give away what we think, feel and do. 

Somehow, we say we care about privacy but don't often do anything to protect it.

Also: The best robot vacuums: Expert tested

But here's something that may help in ways that we might never have imagined. It's a robotic camera system -- and its sole purpose is to protect your privacy.

Its creators at the University of Sydney, Australia say they want to fight anyone who tries to sneak through your robot vacuum, your Ring camera, or any other so-called smart home device and get a full view of your inner life. Which includes, of course, where you keep your most valuable items.

In a paper outlining their work, the researchers say: "We propose a specific form of inherent privacy preservation in which no images are captured or could be reconstructed by an attacker, even with full remote access."

Their method sounds simple enough. They call it: "data-destroying operations and obfuscation in the optical and analog domains."

You can think of it as "all that nefarious spies will be able to see is a blurred image of the inside of your house."

The researchers appeal to the whole robot-camera industry. There are so many areas of life and business, they explain, where privacy is vital: health care, senior care, intellectual property in manufacturing, and -- of course -- home security.

Also: Everything you need for smart home security

Why wouldn't everyone be interested in a technology that benefits everyone but the ill-intentioned and the snoopy?

You, though, might be wondering what this technology looks like. What does it do to images from inside your house?

Helpfully, the researchers created a video that shows precisely how indistinct the images would become.

On one side, you see a bedroom, a bathroom, and a living room. On the other side, once the new technology is applied, you see, well, whatever that is. A blob? A blur? The inner workings of a confused mind?

Essentially, the technology confines the processing of images within the analog systems of the camera, rather than within a remotely accessible computer.

The technology creates a mask around your house, without impeding the gadget's ability to perform its domestic duties. You'll still get a clean house with your robot vacuum. You just won't leave yourself clean open to people wanting to access the vacuum's camera.

Also: I tested this $40 security camera from Amazon and it now has a place in my home

In essence, your robot vacuum is a trustworthy family member, rather than a dangerous interloper.

The whole thing is quite hypnotic and makes one wonder why anyone wouldn't want to adopt such a system -- and, indeed, why customers wouldn't demand such a system from the manufacturers of internet-dependent things.

Of course, there's still a worry.

While the researchers say they couldn't hack what they created, who'd be surprised if other enterprising types -- they're always out there -- could find a way around the mask?

Also: The best drones you can buy: Expert tested

Still, isn't this a fine example for the camera industry to follow? Isn't it wise to consider the privacy of the customer not as a nuisance, not as something to be pandered to with words rather than deeds, but as a powerful selling point?

Or have we really given up on the privacy thing and can't wait for Amazon's drones to deliver our detergent while peeking into our kitchen?

Just to check if we need something else, you understand.

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