Last week I participated in a panel of the interdisciplinary seminar
“ANYWARE: Privacy and location data in the era of machine learning”. The event was organised by the wonderful people of the Faculty of Law and Criminology of the Free University of Brussels (VUB). The event was delightful (so that’s not what this blog post is going to be about ;-). What happened afterwards was an unexpected glimpse into a very bleak future…

The VUB provides accommodation for visitors and students, through their
U-Residence on the Etterbeek campus. The organisers offered me a room to stay in these facilities. (They later told me they are more-or-less forced to do so by university rules.)

The interesting thing about this guesthouse is that it is completely non-staffed. When registering for a room online, they send you a reservation number by email. That email also contains an access code to open the front door. Once inside, you have to enter your reservation code into a kind of vending machine. If you have a valid reservation code, the vending machine ejects a contactless keycard that allows you to open the door of your room (as well as the front door). The card is not pre-programmed, however, so you have to program it yourself by putting it against a rectangular pad (a smart card reader/writer) in front of the vending machine.

When going through these motions in the evening, before going to dinner with all participants, this last step failed for me. (As it turned out, it failed for other people too that day.)

I tried to enter the reservation number again, again the machine returned an empty keycard to program, and again the machine failed to program the keycard so I could use it to enter my room. Instead it printed a failure-receipt, with instructions to call a particular phone number.

To my surprise, this number did not belong to a VUB institution, but instead got me in contact with Securitas customer support. (Securitas is a large international company offering ‘protective’ services.) The number I called with my own mobile phone did apparently encode the fact that I was calling to get help regarding the U-Residence. At least the guy answering my call knew I was there without me telling him. I explained the situation (in Dutch) and was told support would arrive within 5 to 10 minutes. Of course this took twice as long, but that is hardly worth mentioning.

After 20 minutes support arrived. Unfortunately the guy only spoke French (while Belgium is, in theory at least, supposed to be bilingual). And unfortunately my French is very rudimentary. I tried to explain the situation in English, but the guy did not understand at all. I tried in my best French, and then he said he didn’t know how to help me because this was the first time he was on the premises. He clearly saw the vending machine for the first time. (He even tried to insert the keycard back into the slot that was used to eject it. I was able to prevent him from doing so, because that for sure would have broken the machine…). In the end he called someone for help, and went into the building for at least 10 minutes. At last he returned with a pre-programmed card… for the wrong room. He beckoned me into the building and then at long last gave me the correct keycard. I was able to enter my room and dash for dinner at a nearby restaurant, just in time as starters had already been served.

It was pretty bad experience (and it could have been a hell of a lot worse!) but made for a great dinner conversation afterwards, of course.

However I fear I, and many others, will run into similar experiences in our smart lives (that is to say: us being surrounded by so-called smartness) in the not so distant future. Unless we change course.