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Meet Zoe, a New Smart Home Hub that Lets You Control Your Data

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The crowdfunded device by Protonet offers data security in an increasingly crowded smart home market

Like many in the technology world, Ali Jelveh, CEO of the Hamburg, Germany-based startup Protonet, has seen great opportunities in the smart home world, estimated to be a $15.6 billion industry in the United States alone this year. But he believes that most consumers are focusing on the ease and convenience of devices such as the Amazon Echo, and not paying enough attention to the tradeoffs, especially in terms of data security.

"These connected sensors are coming into every single inches of our lives," he says. "Companies are saying, you’ll get some buttons and convenience, and we’ll do the rest, with the rest being extracting data and selling it. We’re just not going to get the privacy that we deserve. We’re not even part of the value chain of our own data."

That’s inspired Jelveh and Protonet to create Zoe, a smart home hub they’re currently raising funds for via an Indiegogo campaign. Unlike the majority of similar products on the market, Zoe isn’t connected to the cloud (or for that matter, Protonet's servers), offering an increased level of data security for owners. Designed to "put the balance of power towards the users," according to Jelveh, the device is set up so users don’t need to know much about IT or data services, or be a Linux geek, to get it working.

Currently in pre-order for $199 and up, the device offers voice recognition, compatibility with many of the leading smart home devices (via Bluetooth, W-Lan, and Z-Wave protocols), and customizable Art Covers, a bid to make the device part of the look of a room, instead of a plastic box hidden from sight. Along with a series of Drop speakers that can be placed around the home and link to the hub, Zoe promises voice-activated control without sending commands or data outside the home to be stored, analyzed, or monetized.

Jelveh claims that, despite the computing power of the cloud, uncoupling Zoe doesn’t significantly change its performance. He says the fractional increase in performance you’ll see being connected to outside servers and data centers, and their processing power, isn’t worth the data security trade-off. For instance, weather data is freely available without linking up to another company’s server, and voice-recognition software for the home only needs to recognize and master a narrow number of phrases and commands. As far as the competition's claims, he says its "algorithms being sold as magic."

"The fractional improvement you’ll see being connected to a huge data center isn’t worth being linked to the cloud and losing data security," says Jelveh.

Jelveh and his co-founders saw the rise of the cloud while working in Germany in the late 2000s. And while the shift offered more computing power and storage, he felt the concentration of data from millions of users created a situation ripe for abuse. Protonet felt there was a gap in the market for decentralized cloud systems, and their answer, the SOUL, a private cloud server, has gone on to raise millions via crowdfunding and attract the attention of investors, including Seedmatch, which invest three million Euros in Protonet in 2014. The company, which also started a Free Your Data campaign to press for changes in laws governing data privacy, has made this issue one of their selling points.

"The idea was counterintuitive at the time," he says. "Everything was going to the cloud, and supposedly nobody cared about data and privacy. We found out that it isn’t really true. A lot of people were resigned to the idea that you could only get the service these companies provided in trade for your data. A lot of people were in that mindset, and we wanted to prove this isn’t true."

Jelveh believes big players such as Amazon want to get into your home and use your data as a means to benefit their other businesses. Zoe, he says, is an easy way to start the smart home journey, and it offers numerous advantages to its competitors, including the ability to work when the cloud and connectivity are compromised. They’ll soon open up the platform to third-party developers, who will hopefully add additional functionality.

"There’s going to be an organic movement towards data, and people will gain the importance of data and what they can do with it," he says. "Zoe wants to make you an equal player in the market."

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