Smart devices spy on you: 2 computer scientists explain how the Internet of Things can violate your privacy

Smart devices spy on you: 2 computer scientists explain how the Internet of Things can violate your privacy

Have you ever felt the creepy feeling that someone is watching you? Then you turn around and see nothing out of the ordinary. However, depending on where you were, you may not have fully imagined it. There are billions of things that detect you every day. They’re everywhere, hidden in plain sight: inside your TV, refrigerator, car, and office. These things know more about you than you realize, and many of them communicate that information over the Internet.

In 2007, it would have been hard to imagine the revolution of useful apps and services that smartphones ushered in. But they came with a cost in terms of intrusion and loss of privacy. What computer scientists what are you studying data management and privacy, we find that with Internet connectivity extended to devices in homes, offices and cities, privacy is more in jeopardy than ever.

Internet of Things

Your appliances, car, and home are designed to make your life easier and automate the tasks you do every day: turning lights on and off when you enter and leave a room, reminding you that your tomatoes are about to spoil, customizing the temperature of the house depending on the climate and the preferences of each person in the home.

To work their magic, they need the Internet to search for help and correlate data. Without internet access, your smart thermostat can collect data about you, but it doesn’t know what the weather forecast is and it’s not powerful enough to process all the information to decide what to do.

A disk with a display screen mounted on a wall.
The Nest Smart Thermostat tracks your presence and is connected to the Internet.
Smart home perfected/Flickr, CC BY

But it’s not just the things in your home that communicate over the Internet. Workplaces, shopping malls, and cities are also getting smarter, and smart devices in those places have similar requirements. In fact, the Internet of Things (IoT) is already widely used in transportation and logistics, agriculture and farming, and industry automation. There were about 22 billion internet-connected devices in use around the world in 2018, and the number is projected to grow to over 50 billion by 2030.

What these things know about you

Smart devices collect a wide range of data about their users. Smart security cameras and smart assistants are ultimately cameras and microphones in your home that collect video and audio information about your presence and activities. On the less obvious end of the spectrum, things like smart TVs use cameras and microphones to spy on userssmart bulbs track your sleep and heart rateand smart vacuum cleaners recognize objects in your house and map every inch of it.

Sometimes this surveillance is marketed as a feature. For example, some Wi-Fi routers can collect information about the whereabouts of users at home and even coordinate with other smart devices to detect motion.

Manufacturers often promise that only automated decision-making systems and not humans will see their data. But this is not always the case. For example, Amazon workers listen to some conversations with Alexatranscribe and annotate them, before entering them into automated decision-making systems.

But even limiting access to personal data to automated decision-making systems can have unintended consequences. Any private data that is shared over the Internet could be vulnerable to hackers anywhere in the world, and few consumer devices connected to the Internet are very secure.

Understand your vulnerabilities

With some devices, such as smart speakers or cameras, users may occasionally turn them off for privacy. However, even when this is an option, disconnecting devices from the Internet can severely limit their usefulness. You also don’t have that option when you’re in smart workspaces, malls, or cities, so you could be vulnerable even if you don’t own smart devices.

Therefore, as a user, it is important to make an informed decision by understanding the trade-offs between privacy and convenience when purchasing, installing, and using an Internet-connected device. This is not always easy. Studies have shown that, for example, owners of smart home personal assistants have an incomplete understanding what data the devices collect, where the data is stored, and who can access it.

a little boy touches the top of a black cylinder on a dining table while a family eats in the background
Smart speakers continually listen for your commands.
Oscar Wong/Moment via Getty Images

Governments around the world have introduced laws to protect privacy and give people more control over their data. Some examples are the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Y California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Thanks to this, for example, you can submit a data subject access request (DSAR) to the organization that collects your data from a device connected to the Internet. Organizations must respond to requests within those jurisdictions within one month explaining what data is collected, how it is used within the organization and if it is shared with third parties.

Limit damage to privacy

Regulations are an important step; however, your app will likely take a while to catch up with the ever-increasing population of internet-connected devices. In the meantime, there are things you can do to reap some of the benefits of connecting to the Internet without revealing an excessive amount of personal data.

If you own a smart device, you can take steps to protect it and minimize risks to your privacy. The Federal Trade Commission offers tips on how to protect your internet connected devices. Two key steps are updating the device’s firmware regularly and reviewing your settings and disabling any data collection that isn’t related to what you want the device to do. Online Trust Alliance provides additional information tips and a checklist for consumers to ensure the safe and private use of consumer devices connected to the Internet.

If you’re not sure whether to buy an Internet-connected device, find out what data it captures and what the manufacturer’s data management policies are from independent sources like Mozilla privacy not included. Using this information, you can opt for a version of the smart device you want from a manufacturer that takes the privacy of its users seriously.

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Last but not least, you can pause and reflect on whether you really need all your devices to be smart. For example, are you willing to give information about yourself in order to verbally command your coffee maker to make you a coffee?

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