When one of the nation's top police officers tells you that fridges, washing machines and other "smart" devices could one day keep you out of jail, it has to change your approach to household purchases. According to the head of Scotland Yard's digital forensics unit, fridges of the not-too-distant future could provide the alibi you need to prove your innocence.

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If the device records all its usage, if you can talk to it via phone and if, like some already on sale, it has a live-action camera to show you its contents, then it is easy to see how it could provide clues to detectives. (The camera is a worry to me. I can see the value of being able to check your fridge while at the supermarket but the way the web is going, it won't be long before they turn this into a TV show. After Gogglebox, here's Icebox - a racially diverse group commenting on events in people's cold storage: "Oh look, he's gone for the Benecol".)

And let's not forget digital assistants such as Alexa, which can record all your interactions. Pretty soon it will be possible to map most of your household movements. We've all heard of the eye in the sky; now we must get used to the snitch in the kitchen.

Personally, I'm not sure I would like what it says about me if the only alibi I can muster is a fridge. If your innocence is going to be established by a WiFi-enabled device, you would prefer it to be the dashboard camera on your Ferrari. Still, if your fridge can get you off the hook, that's not to be sneezed at. This does mean you may wish to invest in a higher quality of fridge, however. Cheap chillers are all very well but you need a unit that won't crack in the witness box. And the system is bound to be open to abuse. For the right price, the chances are you will be able to find a dishwasher prepared to say it was with you at the time the crime was committed.

It must cut both ways, however. While your white goods could prove your innocence, they could also prove your guilt. You would be pretty miffed to plan what you thought was the perfect murder and then find you had been grassed up by your toaster.

But this is only the start. Once these data-enriched devices, complete with cameras, are standard in the home, it may only be a matter of time before they turn detective themselves. This could be good for us honest citizens - but I do worry about its impact on the crime-fiction genre. Inspector Icebox may be dead cool at his job (see what I did there?) but it won't make for gripping television. For a start, all fictional detectives need a powerful backstory, and rejection by a washer-dryer when he was younger may lack an emotional punch.

Such series could also be low on action. An immobile cop would certainly need assistants such as a driverless car and some drones, but at least these smart devices could easily go undercover, hiding among the white goods in a suspect's kitchen. Perhaps he could be called in to work on cold cases (see, I did it again). Obviously, like all detectives, he will need a dimmer, northern sidekick - unless he is a northerner, in which case he will be looking for a smarter southern aide. The fridge would need a bit of style, perhaps a fedora or a love of jazz - nothing that should frustrate a talented writer. Actually, the jazz-loving, smart-fridge detective - I may be on to something here.

There is a serious point here for those of us not planning to require an alibi from our white goods. The scale of data-collection possibilities among connected devices is now immense, and most of it for minuscule labour-saving benefits. There are ever fewer areas of our lives that are immune from monitoring by one business or another and, once they can, the information gleaned can be transformed into "data insights", which turn you into a product to be marketed between firms or even demanded by agents of the state.

Remember that quaint old phrase "in the privacy of your own home". I wonder how often we will be using it in 20 years' time.


This article was originally published by The Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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