Smart devices are spying on you – 2 IT experts explain how the Internet of Things can violate your privacy

Have you ever felt a creeping sensation that someone is watching you? Then you turn around and see nothing out of the ordinary. Depending on where you were, however, you might 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, fridge, car and office. These things know more about you than you realize, and many of them communicate this information on the Internet.

In 2007, it would have been hard to imagine the revolution in useful apps and services that smartphones ushered in. But they came at a cost in terms of intrusion and loss of confidentiality. As computer scientists who study data management and privacy, we find that with Internet connectivity extended to devices in homes, offices, and cities, privacy is at greater risk 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: turn lights on and off when you enter and leave a room, remind you when your tomatoes are about to spoil, customize the temperature of the house according to the weather and the preferences of each person in the household.

To do their magic, they need the internet to ask 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.

The Nest smart thermostat tracks your presence and is connected to the internet.
Advanced smart home/Flickr, CC BY

But it’s not just the things in your home that communicate on the Internet. Workplaces, 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 industrial automation. There were around 22 billion internet-connected devices in use worldwide in 2018, and that number is expected 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. At the less obvious end of the spectrum, things like smart TVs use cameras and microphones to spy on users, smart light bulbs track your sleep and heart rate, and smart vacuum cleaners recognize objects in and around your home. map every inch.

Sometimes this monitoring is marketed as a feature. For example, some Wi-Fi routers can collect location information from users in the home and even coordinate with other smart devices to detect movement.

Manufacturers usually promise that only automated decision-making systems and not humans see your data. But it’s not always the case. For example, Amazon employees listen to certain conversations with Alexa, transcribe and annotate them, before feeding them into automated decision-making systems.

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

Understand your vulnerabilities

With some devices, like smart speakers or cameras, users can sometimes turn them off for privacy reasons. However, even when it is an option, disconnecting devices from the internet can severely limit their usefulness. You also don’t have that option when you’re in workspaces, malls, or smart cities, so you might 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. Its not always easy. Studies have shown that, for example, owners of smart home personal assistants have an incomplete understanding of what data the devices collect, where the data is stored, and who can access it.

a toddler touches the top of a black cylinder on a dining table while a family eats in the background
Smart speakers constantly listen to 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) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Through this, for example, you can submit a data subject access request (DSAR) to the organization collecting your data from an internet-connected device. Organizations are required to respond to requests within these jurisdictions within one month explaining what data is collected, how it is used within the organization and whether it is shared with third parties.

Limit privacy breaches

Regulation is an important step; however, their app will likely take some time to catch up with the ever-increasing number of internet-connected devices. In the meantime, there are things you can do to take advantage of some of the benefits of connecting to the Internet without disclosing an excessive amount of personal data.

If you have a smart device, you can take steps to secure it and minimize the risk to your privacy. The Federal Trade Commission offers suggestions on how to secure your Internet-connected devices. Two key steps are to regularly update the device’s firmware, go through its settings, and turn off any data collection that isn’t related to what you want the device to do. The Online Trust Alliance provides additional advice and a checklist for consumers to ensure safe and private use of internet-connected consumer devices.

If you’re about to purchase an internet-connected device, learn about the data it captures and the manufacturer’s data management policies from independent sources such as Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included. Using this information, you can opt for a version of the smart device you want from a manufacturer that takes user privacy seriously.

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Finally, you can pause and ask yourself if you really need all your devices to be smart. For example, are you willing to give information about yourself so that you can verbally command your coffee machine to make you coffee?

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