A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR⌗
This story is inspired by the never ending stream of horror provided by the tweets of @internetofshit, and Cory Doctorows Unauthroized Bread – seriously, go read that instead, it’s much better than this story. Actually, no wait, go read that, then come back here and read this one… you went already didn’t you…
Glod help us all, the future is just around the corner and it looks like it’s planning to mug everyone.
SMART HOME EXORCIST⌗
Congratulations on your new smart home! I am certain you will be very happy—except the plumbing makes that strange noise, the bathroom door keeps locking and unlocking at inopportune moments and the toaster keeps burning gibbering box-runes into your breakfast. Congratulations—you’ve got a formerly-smart home.
It’s not your fault, you did your due diligence but with the weaving of the Internet of Things into everything from doorbells to wall paint and shower curtains, it is understandable that you did not catch on before the bank transfer cleared and the estate agent drove off at some speed. However now that you have discovered the truth, you are stuck with it. No one in their right mind will buy it from you—nor demolish it in case it happens to be a historic construct (Generation I or II), or sufficiently complex (Generation V+) to be of interest to the Digital Intelligence Preservation Society. No one wants to mess with the DIPS. All that late twenty second century billionaire foundation money buys a lot of lawyers. You will have to learn to live with it—or you could hire J.Montroe & Associates, one of the growing numbers of businesses in the Smart Home Reclamation industry.
I’d spent the better part of a month trying to get a hold of Montroe. Her name kept popping up. Past clients, most only willing to talk off the record for fear of the social stigma, whispered her name with reverence. The Nets seemed filled with apocryphal allegories. Impossible tasks solved as if by magic. Yet she was near impossible to get a hold off. After multiple requests via phone, email, letter and BCN, I had all but given up. Then I got a call. Did I want to tag along for an exorcism?
A few hours later I stood in the wreckage of an unlicensed bodega in the Northern district. The City was still recovering from the fire that had ravaged it. Dark soot clung to the facades of the few untouched buildings sticking out of the ruined cityscape. As part of the cleanup efforts The City Ruling Body had hired a bevy of contractors to deal with the technological fallout. Ancient environmental and electronic crimes hidden behind brick and concrete for centuries spilling out into the light of day as the clearing crews worked their way through the ruins.
The sour wails of the ancient Room-Wide® holo display made the air vibrate. Getting closer to the charred brick walls framing the backroom I stuck my fingers in my ears and peered through the door frame. The room was a meshed mess of glitched holo projections—bits of hundred year old movies stitched together with ads and porno’s into a migraine inducing kaleidoscope. A figure hunched over the card table covered in disassembled innards from a fridge in the center of the room—a crude paper mache mask with a face printed on it was strapped to its head by elastic bands as it stabbed repeatedly at the fridge innards with a long silver probe.
“What on the Gods green earth, ki kaka sa!” a woman’s voice cut through the noise, “Fout tone!”. The holography faded, the screaming whine abruptly cut short. Thus Montroe entered into my life, as a high priestess driving out the bedeviled spirit of an appliance mesh network.
Later, over coffee and churros, she told me the story of the bodega banshee. After a lengthy legal process her client had come into possession of the bodega, removing the GBNG pushers that the previous owners had sub-let to. It was reasonably well kept and in a good spot once the expected district restructuring got underway. Or so they thought.
To their horror they discovered that the previous owners had improvised a shop interface out of an unlicensed hodgepodge of smart devices—serving customers and GBNG fiends alike, making a monsterous mashup of data to train the ancient neural net on. There were no security patches, no support, no control. The companies that built the devices ahving gone out of business or walked away from their creations once the profit margin got too slim – orphaning the smart devices in a world of botnets and fiends.
What I witnessed was the bodega throwing a hissy fit because the previous owners were gone and it had not been properly transferred to the new ones. A final parting sucker punch from the previous owners. When the system went haywire following the fire, the new owners couldn’t calm it down—never mind that their name was on the property deed.
Over several hours Montroe nursed a software transfer aimed at sweeping up all the individual mini-intelligence’s without harming them, making it possible to slowly detach the hardware from the property.
“Like an amputation” she told me, “except the patient isn’t strapped down and has 230 volts at their finger tips to share their pain with.” After hours of prodding, digging, detangling and swearing, Montroe re-scheduled the interview. Several busy weeks later, after many a reschedule, we finally found a gap in her schedule to meet so she could fill me in on the industry and “avoid another moron running her mouth in the press with no Gods be damned clue what she is talking about.” as Montroe put it.
She was late, I was early.
“Job took extra time.” is all she offered as an explanation.
Without the paper mache mask, an attempt to fool the facial recognition software of the smart fridge at the heart of the mesh (with an average 79.2% success rate apparently), Montroe’s face is a pair of deep set steel gray eyes framed by fading brown bangs.
“Go back a hundred years, smart homes and appliances were for the rich and nerdy,” she says while tearing into her jumbo sized serving of churros and coffee, “you figured out how to do it yourself, or you had to pay someone.”
Smart technology was a luxury when it first appeared. A rarity built either by enthusiasts or for the idle rich as show pieces. Much has changed since the beginning of smart tech however. Following the summer of international housing riots, smart tech gave rise to the low-cost tenant subsidized housing boom now gripping many city states where real estate speculation is still done by corporations.
But what exactly is tenant subsidized housing?
“Say you want to build some apartments—a rough estimate for a fifty unit complex these days is somewhere north of three hundred millions. No one has that amount of legal tender laying around. It’s basically what caused the construction laundromats a hundred years ago.” We are on the eight floor of a nine floor housing development in the neighboring city state of Freiburg. The doors still have bits of foil clinging to them and builders dust drifts through the air. The man speaking is Terry D. Franke. A real estate developer and self styled Libertarian Socialist with a vision of how smart technology will save the housing market from itself.
“You go to the bank, who wants some kind of security before they’ll lend you a pen, let alone hundreds of millions for a development.” He gestures to the construction going on around him.
“Now, you could leverage your past project for a mortgage, assuming the city state’s involved look kindly on people transferring large amounts of money in and out, but that quickly becomes a never ending snowball of debt. One bad quarter, a natural disaster, a fire, some tenants in a bogus class action lawsuit making for a PR disaster, and suddenly the whole thing comes crashing down. No one wants that.”
According to Franke you could build luxury apartments, something “glitzy” to cater to a richer clientele looking to stash some money in real estate, out of reach of the tax collectors. A McTower of bad taste with faux everything, floor to ceiling.
“Baby grand pianos in the bathrooms and polished marmorite kitchen counters.” This way it is possible to make more short term money, but now you have to worry about people getting priced out of the neighborhood and taking issue with it. “Next thing you know there are rent strikes and people claiming gentrification and protesting, making the investors nervous. So what to do?”. Franke says no one had the answer, a way to make affordable social housing that was profitable. “Except me.” he says grinning widely.
“Look, if you build smaller cheaper apartments the banks don’t like that. They are looking at you thinking here is a chump that won’t turn a profit in years. These are the kind of homes where tenants will be late with their rents, that will damage the property without any plan to fix it. The kind of people that lived above their means and caused the Great Housing Bubble that nearly took down the banks when it burst.”
None of these options would do for Franke. Then one day, while browsing the financial news feeds, he had an idea. “Now your average fin.trad [[Ed.note: traditional financial trader]] might think of rent futures, anchoring the loans in the expected sales and rent income. But that is not enough. What I added to offset the risk is access. The kind of access to metadata that marketing execs could only dream of. Sure, you can track phones and communal media, browser habits even. But how do you know if what they are sharing is the real truth? Are they really spending their time wind surfing? Are they really into that new holo series or do they have nothing else to talk to their aunt about? Hell, they could be one of those extremist nuts pushing fake data in an attemt to devalue or even crash the whole ad market!” What all of this translates to, according to Franke, are all the conveniences of a smart home—with some added features. “Why not check the front door to see how much time they have spent home over the last three months? What channels the holo was tuned to, the number of faces facing it, their gender and age, what snacks were they shoveling in their faces? Heck, we can track individual audience engagement metrics at any given second, using neural networked micro expression enhancers, and how often they scratched their ass.”
Franke sees it as the perfect way to finance low income and social housing.
“I know what you are thinking, but the tenants are not inconvenienced. It is all low key automatic, which means they don’t have to worry about choosing between paying the rent or getting their meds. The advertising consortium gets to ensure their product reaches the right people, the bank gets hard numbers and a revenue stream to secure their loan, and I get to turn a profit while providing the kind of housing the tenants could only previously dream about while reading the glossies!”
Montroe has a different view of tenant subsidized housing. “Mister Franke,” she says with a sour face, “is responsible for most of my jobs outside The City. He sells false dreams. Nightmares. Half the apartments we get contacted about are former Franke Real Estate homes. They use cheap end of life smart products offloaded by sellers at a deep discount, then sell the homes months before manufacturers drop support.” Apparently there is a term for these kinds of homes in the Smart Home Reclamation business circles, the Franke Special.
“They are a bunch of exaggerating hucksters” Franke fires back, “water dowsers and snake oil salesmen, hyping the value of their own business ventures. The kind of folks that call up your elderly relatives and offer free tech support that cost an arm and a leg.” He shakes his head causing a cascade of builders dust from his pristine white hard hat.
“Were there problems with the early smart homes? Of course. The first car, the first plane, the first BNC, all the firsts had issues that early adopters helped iron out.” He insists as he takes me on a tour of his latest development, Goldgate Towers. With three bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen with attached living room totaling roughly 170 square meters, it is over double the size of an average social housing apartment in most city states in NEUrope. “Look at this place. A luxurious home for those squeezed out of the housing market by the outdated luxury developers—at a tenth of the price of what it would have cost under the old government model of social housing even.” He takes me to the living room where he motions to a small niche carved into the wall where several fiber-optic wires terminate in a black box with a pulsating greed light on the front. “All of this is thanks to Tenant Subsidized Housing, giving you a self-reliance at a level no government or previous privatized housing program could ever provide. Through your participation in the market by leveraging the untapped value of the metadata you produce as a byproduct of your daily life, you get to live above your social base value. Automated social mobility at an industrial scale. Living the dream of doing better than your parents, guaranteed—how could you not think of this as a great thing?” The idea of Tenant Subsidized Housing has gained traction over the last ten years, especially outside of NEUrope, following the continued housing crisis and global rise in rents.
I tried to get an interview with several occupants of Franke’s smart homes, but none would go on record regarding the experience of living in Tenant Subsidized Housing. Many were unwilling, I suspect, due to the ongoing sealed class action taking place in three separate city states courts at this very moment.
Montroe agrees that the apartments are bigger and have a higher level of luxury than the historical alternatives. The long term impact of this compromise is still mostly only shown in computer models and simulations. No two sims yet agree on what the exact effect of it will be. “What happens when you move? The smart is baked right into the apartment, a cache holding all your old data, which any new tenants will add to, and have access to. Nothing is secured, nothing gets erased, no one gets to choose.”
The issue of old data retention is something I’ve experienced myself. Mrs.Small—a former neighbor and ersatz grandmother to more than half of the families in the block—sent me a letter recently despite been dead for the past eight years. Though she had lived in a non-smart apartment most of her life, she had no choice after she needed care. She was moved into a smart-assisted living facility. So called SALs are another growing sector that is applying the Tenant Subsidized Housing model to their business—seeking to solve the problem of a lack of trained elderly care workers, nurses and doctors. In some ways it is reminiscent of the Telenoids of yesteryear, staff directed androids interacting with seniors, that saw a limited success as it allowed one care worker to juggle multiple patients simultaneously.
The letter asked me to help her. Send her money to help with a named medical condition that she actually struggled with in the last years of her life. I dug around and found that Evergreen Acres (the name of the now defunct SAL) had closed the previous March. It was an ancient fourth generation smart system. Unsupported after it was orphaned by the company that bought its defunct manufacturer. It still had the personal data of all tenants that had lived there for the last forty odd years. Bank info used for automatic billing, copies of ID documents, photos, video and audio recordings of their children and others visiting. It was a veritable treasure trove for criminals.
Though the SAL had been offline for years, someone had figured out that if they set up a server with the old leaked certificates from the AmTron Corporation, they could robocall the offline AmTron SALs via low frequency BNC and request they upload all data to the remote server. They were able to access the information stored in at least twenty SALs and an estimated twelve thousand smart homes before NEUropol got involved and the criminals went underground. No arrests have been made though the investigation, I’ve been told, is ongoing.
The exploits of the criminal empires that have risen around smart appliances, their hidden markets and the NEUropol agents that are hot on their heels is a topic for another article whoever. I’m out of words and time. As always, thank you to my reading sponsors that donate on a per article basis, as well as my monthly subscribers. Without your help I would have to get a real job in a content mill somewhere.
Until next time, stay safe, and maybe check on that odd noise you keep hearing from the fridge—it could be that you have an orphaned smart device hoarding a dragons trove of data under your very own roof. If so, save yourself the brain pain and call a smart home reclamation expert before it turns on you.
Image modified from the cover of Beware No.11 (1952) via Comic Book Plus
Smart Home Exorcist © 2022 by Cornelius K. is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International – so feel free to share it, upload it, print it and generally get jiggy with it as long as there isn’t a monetary profit in it, and you share what you make under the same license. If you enjoy this story stop on by The Infrequency (my home abode) where you will find a mish-mash of blog posts and future short stories as they are published.