- Internet-connected household items collect, store, and share personal data
- Consumers not accustomed to considering inanimate objects as surveillance points
- Transmitted data is vulnerable to interception by hackers
The creepiest thing about modern surveillance may be how seamless it is. Point to any object you own, and there’s a good chance it’s gathering information about you. If it’s not yet, it soon will be.
Citizens cling to a notion of surveillance that envisions spy cameras on street corners and workplaces monitored by productivity-minded management. But these days, it’s not just our physical selves but everything about our public and private lives that is mapped, tracked, shared, and sold.
Embedded in quotidian environments, modern surveillance sneaks into places where we are most casual and most comfortable. It invades our most personal zones, and saturates our homes, where we feel safe and where we let our guard down.
Your digital home assistant knows that you call your sweetie “sugar booger”
Smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home promise to smooth the hassles of running a household by setting alarms, creating to-do lists, playing music, and filling your home with the sounds of a forest of chattering birds, all in response to a simple voice command.
But to hear those commands, the assistants eavesdrop on activity in the home. Though manufacturers claim the devices record and transmit only a few seconds of audio prior to activation, consumers must take this promise on faith. Early in October, a Google Home Mini remained perpetually ‘on’, streaming recordings to Google.
These assistants aren’t just passive listeners — they also collect your data. They know when you go to work and when you come home, what music you like, and what you want to buy. If you use their paired apps, they may also know your banking details and when you book an Uber.
Google and Siri already provide transcripts of audio recordings to developers of third-party apps, and Amazon may soon join them.
Your TV knows that you spent last Friday night on the couch binge-watching all four seasons of Small Wonder
In February, Vizio, a major manufacturer of TVs, agreed to pay a fine to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), accepting responsibility for tracking user data without disclosure or consent.
Vizio amassed up to 100 billion data points per day from millions of TVs, including date, time, and channel, and linked it all to the users' IP addresses. The resulting data was then re-sold, and transmitted without encryption, to third parties for a substantial profit.
Wikileaks claims that the CIA can spy on you through your TV, thanks to a ‘Fake Off’ mode inserted in Samsung TVs. The TV appears to be switched off, but is actually on, and can capture audio and possibly video of anything in the room.
Your Roomba knows that four years after moving in, your “dining room” is still furnished with an empty pizza box and a beanbag
At first, a robotic vacuum cleaner might seem like a more private option than hiring a stranger to come into your house once a week and push a Hoover around. But a Roomba doesn’t just suck up stray Cheerios and give your cat a mobile throne to ride around the house.
Since 2015, Roomba models have included a camera and new software for map-making. What enables it to navigate also allows it to spy.
The robo-vac maps the dimensions of rooms and the distance between objects and furnishings, creating a detailed floorplan of your living space that it shares with third parties.
iRobot, maker of the Roomba, claims they do this for the homeowner’s benefit, to improve future smart home amenities like lighting, acoustics, and security systems. But it’s also extremely valuable consumer information. Acoustics, for example, reveal the emptiness of a room. Perhaps you’d like some suggestions of furniture to help you fill it up.
Your baby monitor knows that your teenage son’s favorite bedtime story used to be Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket
A public petition of 17,000 signatures shut down the release of toy company Mattel’s smart baby monitor, ‘Aristotle’ before it was even released.
Announced in January of 2017, Aristotle was a voice-activated, internet-connected camera device with smart features that promised to ‘comfort, entertain, and assist’ with child-rearing ‘from infancy to adolescence’ by reading bedtime stories, ‘reinforcing good manners’, and teaching foreign languages.
Aristotle may be a dead project, but you can be sure a new version will be back on the drawing board very soon. In a few years, consumers will have either accepted that level of intrusion or the manufacturers will have found a way to spin it differently — the promise of cradle to grave consumer data is too enticing to give up.
Your vibrator knows what “sugar booger” calls you
Even the most (ahem) personal, devices no longer come with privacy expectations. In 2016, hackers revealed that the We-Vibe networked vibrator not only compiled data about temperature, intensity of vibration, and frequency of use, but also shared that information with third parties.
And since the device is internet-connected and intended to be activated and controlled remotely (so couples can “play together, even when you’re apart,” according to We-Vibe’s promotional copy), an insecure connection means third parties could hijack speed and preference settings, even while in use.
The end of privacy?
If all that consumer data spiraling into the vaults of Apple, Google, and Amazon doesn’t worry you, realize that connected devices are also vulnerable and easily hacked. Not just by corporations, law enforcement, and shadowy government agencies, but by your creepy next-door neighbor and bored teenagers around the world.
The legal right to privacy in the US was invented in 1890 in response to the combined rise of photography and journalism. It is not a natural condition, but a concept invented by humans. One that, if we want it to persist, we must choose to defend.