Social networks and social applications have become the single hottest growth category for both Web and mobile technology. In hindsight it appears to have been destiny. It’s as if the cloud and mobile had a baby, and they called it social networking. It has become not only the biggest growth category for new startups; it also represents the single largest technology IPO in the history of the U.S. stock market. Social applications have literally transformed the way our society uses computing devices, and now represent the second largest amount of time spent using mobile devices. Social applications have proven useful for domains as diverse as real estate, navigation, family management, reviews, business networking and news distribution.          

And yet, social applications are almost entirely absent from the world of commercial security.

Why is that? Is it just because no one has made the connection? 

Outside of the security industry, there’s a growing trend called the Social Internet of Things (SIoT), which is an offshoot of the better-known Internet of Things (IoT). It describes physical devices connected to social applications that let us interact with them in the same ways we interact with people. Status updates, texting, group updates, checking in, posting photos – all that, with so-called “social things.” My television, for example, is connected to several of my social networking accounts and can tell people what I am watching and when I watched it. Refrigerators are now famously connected to social media and can take part in a dialogue with their owners and the purveyors of their favorite products.

If these commonplace consumer “things” can be social, why not the more industrial or commercial products we use to manage our physical infrastructure? What if the physical spaces we manage could interact the same way as consumer products when connected to “social devices”?  What if our buildings knew who we were and why we were there? What if public places could talk about their security concerns? How would that change the practice of security? How would social spaces, to define a term, change the management of public places?   

Even though the security industry is usually late to the party for new technology adoption, it seems inevitable that social applications will find their way into the industry some time soon. When they do, they have the potential to introduce some of the most sweeping changes we’ve seen since the introduction of IP technology itself.

A few of the likely outcomes include:

  • Enabling a more participatory security process
  • Blending the security experience into business processes
  • Improving real-time situational awareness
  • Creating more intuitive and less obtrusive interactions
  • Generating massive data sets about how our spaces are actually used


What Does it Mean to Be A Social Space?

Amid all the discussion about “social networks” and “social media” and “social applications,” you rarely find a definition of what it means to be social. We know that people are social.  Animals certainly appear to be social. But can a building or a physical space actually be social? 

When it comes right down to it, being social is mostly about how something interacts with the rest of the world. For our purposes, we’ll just say that if something exhibits social behaviors, then it’s social. To narrow that down a bit more, in this context there are four key behaviors that are important for social spaces:

  1. They can know who you are
  2. They can talk to you
  3. They can learn trust
  4. They can take action

Know. Social spaces will be able to identify and know their inhabitants, visitors, guests, caretakers, administrators, and any other people who interact with them. This knowledge is a fundamental building block because social relationships are built on the concept of stable personal identity over time. This means that social spaces will need a way to identify people uniquely, in a way that doesn’t change randomly, preferably with reference to an external identity provider. Social spaces will also need to understand the attributes and roles that are meaningful in the context of their interactions with us. The way we are greeted, where we’re allowed to go, and whatever assistance we receive, for example, will all depend on who we are and why we are there.    

Talk. Being social is all about communicating. No communication, no social relationships. Social spaces will communicate with us through social applications, just like our friends and colleagues do today. The more natural this communications is, the better. So instead of having to learn a new application for every place we go, it should be possible to communicate with a social space as if it were a person, using text or voice exchanges. You could ask a social building to let you in, lock the door, or perhaps allow a guest to visit on a particular date – all without having to learn a new application or switch out of the applications you’re already using.

Trust. Social relationships are all based on trust, and trust is based on familiarity. That’s why your dog barks at strangers and not at your friends. A social building wouldn’t bark at your friends, either. For social spaces, trust would be built up over time, the same as it is between people or animals. Trust frameworks to support this type of learned trust are a hot topic in identity research, and automating trust relationships is a thorny problem. That said, automated trust frameworks that operate in public spaces are an important tool for managing the growing number of security concerns we face today. The sheer number makes it possible to manage all of them through explicit rules, as we have in the past. At some point, our things and buildings and spaces will need the ability to operate more like we do, and learning trust is a big part of it.  The social graphs embedded in social networks provide a rich data set that can be leveraged for this purpose.

Act. Ultimately, the whole point of creating social spaces is to empower them to take actions based on the ability to know, talk, and trust. For example, a social space could remember its past interactions with me, and change its way of dealing with me as it gets to know me better. A social building will know if someone is a friend of someone else, and perhaps allow her to enter where a complete stranger would not be permitted without an escort.


It’s All About Identity

In order for social spaces to become a reality, they need to be able to identify people and share an identity of their own in return.

Today, we don’t really have any agreed upon way to assert identity with any universality or uniqueness. The fact is, there are actually too many ways for us to identify ourselves, but they’re all bound up in the small world of whichever organization issued us a particular identity token. When we go to work, we use an access card from our employer. When we go to the gym, we use a card from the health club. When we use an automated garage, we have yet another identity based on the fob assigned to our car. This means that we’re always identifying ourselves as someone different when we go to different places. And none of these identities has anything to do with the others. No wonder our buildings don’t know
who we are.

There have been many attempts at finding an identity provider that everyone can agree on, but so far none of them has really stuck. The security industry, for example, has many of ways of identifying people, but each suffers from a lack of uniqueness and scope. People outside the industry are horrified to hear that proximity cards aren’t necessarily unique. Smart cards are helping, but the market has been slow to shift to the new technology.

The federal government has made several stabs at this as well, but the closest thing to a national identity initiative is the NSTIC program run by NIST. As a government initiative, however, it faces many adoption hurdles, especially since the NSA spying fiasco.

In some sense, though, the public has already voted about who its favorite identity providers are, and they appear to be the social networking companies. Facebook likely has the largest user base adopting their credentials to register and log into third party websites. Google has been pushing their Google+ credentials for the same purpose. We’re even seeing B2B companies like acting as identity providers for enterprise customers.

Against this backdrop, a social space still needs to have its own unique identity in order to interact with social applications on a social network. It’s likely they will go in the same direction as the rest of us – using the available commercial identity providers that have become a de facto way to identify ourselves online.


Social Communication Channels

One of the main benefits of having social spaces with social identities on the same networks as the user community is that everyone can now communicate with each other using identities and applications that are already a part of their daily lives. These communications could be one-on-one, for example, such as a request or command to a social space. They could also be group messages, as we commonly experience in social media, where a community of interest is all privy to the same stream of information about a particular space or building. Or they might be messages about special events, like the arrival of a guest or a change of venue.

We are seeing the emergence of this use of social communications for personal and neighborhood safety in applications like Life360 and Nextdoor. Life360 operates at the level of the family, providing integrated messaging and location tools that give the entire family situational awareness about each other.  If someone fails to arrive where they should be, or goes somewhere they shouldn’t, geofencing algorithms trigger alerts that allow family members to respond. Nextdoor creates awareness across a private group defined by geographical proximity in a residential setting.

Both of these types of tools could easily be applied to commercial and public spaces, where the space itself and everyone who uses it are part of the community of concern, and are enabled to share relevant information across this social channel.


Security as a Customer Experience

It’s probably fair to say that most of our encounters with building security are less than positive. One of my recent security experiences included a long wait in a lobby with a hostile security officer who acted like everyone entering “his” building was lying to him about who they were and why they were there. Then, there was the long wait while they tried to find the person I was there to see. Even in more hospitable lobbies, the best you’ll get is the stranger treatment involving impersonal processing through a cumbersome sign-in procedure.  

The point is, when it’s your building, everything about this user experience is turning off your customers. So, what should customers expect? A customer experience, that’s what. There was a great line from a “Mad Men” episode where Roger Sterling reminded a colleague, “The client should never experience a negative emotion while in your presence.”  That’s a great goal for how people – customers – should feel any time they are in a space we’re securing.

A truly social space could be set up to know in advance who will be visiting. With that information, the guest could be welcomed by name upon arrival, rather than being treated like a stranger and handed a clipboard. By using a mobile credential or pass sent in advance, registration and badging could be as simple as scanning the invitation. The social space would then use a preferred social network to tell your hosts that you’ve arrived. Compared to today’s baseline experience, this whole scenario shows the transformation of an impersonal security experience into a welcoming customer experience.


Crowdsourced Security

Social spaces give rise to the possibility of what I would call social security – if the term weren’t already in use – or crowdsourced security. Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining services from a large group of people who are part of an online community, rather than a traditional employee responsible just for that function. Applying this concept to security is a very powerful way of thinking about how we can enhance the benefits of electronic security in general. 

Consider the usual model for intelligence collection and protection of a building. It’s having one or more dedicated guards or other security personnel watching computer screens and cameras.  This is an expensive process, and there’s no way that a small group of people can ever hope to be as observant as a large group. And many companies, small businesses in particular, can’t afford to have dedicated security departments. But every company has an employee base that could be plugged into a social network group that receives alerts or images about possible issues.

Awareness is readily generated through crowdsourcing, and many of us are already using such crowdsourcing without knowing it by that name.  It has become commonplace to look at online – that is, crowdsourced – reviews of restaurants, hotels, vacation spots, mechanics and many other commercial services before we finalize our plans.  This same socially sourced model fits with the trust level that might be associated with any particular individual entering a public space. Think of it as a personal review of every person who might be entering your building. 

Forewarned is forearmed, and more awareness is always better. 


When’s It Coming?

Social spaces aren’t exactly here yet, but many pieces of the puzzle are coming together in front of our eyes:

  • The use of mobile phones as an identity platform 
  • Wearable computing devices that interact with their environment
  • The proliferation of APIS for cloud-based social platforms
  • The relative ease of stitching services together to form a social fabric around “things”
  • The emergence of social applications that include interactions with inanimate objects like cars, refrigerators and other connected home appliances
  • The growing acceptance of social applications in the business world

Like many other technologies, social computing will move into security slowly at first, then become pervasive, and finally leave us wondering how we did without it.   


About the Author: Steve Van Till is President & CEO of Brivo Systems. This article was originally published in SIA Technology Insights.