We’re Surrounded By Spying Machines: What Can We Do About It?
Smart devices get to know a great deal about us, whether we like it or not. Let’s look at some of the smart devices you may be using on a daily basis, what sort of data they collect, and how you can protect your privacy.
“The thing about PAT is the more time she spends with you, the more she learns. So before long, she will know more about you than you know yourself”.Advertisement
Do you recognize this line from Disney’s Smart House released over two decades ago?
Now read it aloud but change PAT with Alexa or Siri. Yes — the setting of a late ‘90s film about a talking house is now our reality. Whether you’re familiar with the movie or not, the takeaway is simple — smart devices get to know a great deal about us, whether we like it or not.
Let’s look at some of the smart devices you may be using on a daily basis, what sort of data they collect, and how you can protect your privacy. (Also read: 10 Quotes About Tech Privacy That'll Make You Think.)
You’re being observed 24/7
Scary though it may be, that’s most likely your reality if you’re using smart devices every day — from the alarm signal in the morning that Alexa sets for you to the moment you go back to bed in the evening and ask her to turn off the lights.
Smart devices collect a lot of data, including audio, images, video, medical information, and personally identifiable information.
Often, data is collected 24/7. (Who Owns All the Data Collected About You? The Answer May Surprise You.)
If that's not enough — once your data is collected, it doesn’t always remain within the company that has collected it. In certain (not-so-rare) cases, it ends up with various third-parties who may or may not treat your information responsibly.
The All-Hearing Smart Assistants
As mentioned before, smart assistants like Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri are always listening and able to capture background sounds and identify them.
Apple keeps Siri requests tagged to your device ID for six months, then keeps the raw audio for a further 18 months. All of the background and voice data is helpful for turning you into an advertising profile.
Just last July, Apple got involved in a privacy scandal for letting its contractors listen to private voice recordings. The controversy lingered for a month, when finally the company apologized to its clients and promised three changes:
Apple won’t be retaining audio recordings of Siri interactions and requests.
Users will be able to opt-in and opt-out from contributing to the improvement of Siri.
Apple employees (not third-parties) will be able to listen to private voice recordings of the customers who have decided to opt-in.
Amazon Echo — The Smart Listener
If you think Apple is the worst, think again.
Take Amazon’s smart speaker, Amazon Echo. Echo records your conversations with Alexa, and later shares them with third-parties. If that’s not enough — Amazon retains the transcript even after you delete your voice recordings.
Back in April 2019, the media warned us that Amazon started employing a global team to listen to Alexa conversations. Thousands of people were hired to transcribe the voice commands given to Alexa.
Amazon replied by confirming the information, but refuted the fact that it was abusing its users’ privacy. On the contrary, the company said they’re taking the security and privacy of [their] customers' personal information seriously.
Would you want some random person transcribing the conversations with your kids, or spouse? Think about it. It’s up to you to accept this, or look for ways to increase our privacy — if only by a little.
Are You Watching TV — Or Is It Vice Versa?
Not everyone uses smart assistants at home, that’s for sure. However, no less-screen-time or mindfulness trend will ever eliminate those huge TVs from most households.
Smart TVs have one key difference from regular ones — they need an internet connection to work.
And let’s not forget that most Smart TVs have integrated cameras and microphones. Not only do such devices open ways for hackers to get into our home WiFi, but the cameras and microphones of these devices also create other privacy issues, such as recording your day-to-day without you knowing it.
Therefore, if you’ve already stuck some tape on your laptop camera, get some more tape for your TV.
Right at the end of 2019, the FBI released a statement encouraging consumers to be more aware of the Smart TVs they’re buying for themselves or their loved ones.
The FBI emphasized security and surveillance risks a Smart TV can bring. Basically, when you’re buying a new TV, you may unknowingly be getting something that is susceptible to hacker attacks or might “spy” on them for the TV manufacturer or app developers.
What About Those Smartwatches?
Did you know that a significant number of smart devices are actually given as presents?
Our health information may be the most sensitive data about us. Yet we are so willingly giving it away when using smartwatches and similar smartwear, like smart glasses or smart shoes.
There’s no arguing how nice it is to get up in the morning and receive an update on your sleep patterns, heart rate, and blood pressure. Not to mention the fact that you are woken up by a gentle vibration of your smartwatch instead of a loud alarm.
However, the price of this comfort is sharing our data with third-parties, and we have to decide whether we are willing to pay that price, or not.
In November, 2019 Google acquired the FitBit for $2 billion USD. Many people saw this acquisition as a huge offense to the nearly 30 million of the product’s users — their most sensitive information had gotten into the hands of one of the biggest personal data collectors in the world.
Of course, Google representatives continuously preach that they are neither selling data from Fitbit, nor using it for advertising.
Deciding whether the risk is worth it is everyone’s own thing.
The Hacker Gateway In Your Kitchen
You can live without smartwear, home assistants, and Netflix binges. Not having a fridge, however, would be more complicated. And unlike phones or laptops, we don’t buy new fridges all that often.
So maybe it’s worth investing in a smart fridge? Not so fast.
Just like other IoT devices, smart fridges and other smart appliances are prone to key security and privacy issues. First of all, they are connected to all the devices you have at home.
Secondly, they are always connected to the internet, which creates a perfect gateway for hackers to take over your home network, and all the devices you have connected to it.
This means the hacker would not only access information about the temperature your carrots are enjoying in the fridge, but also, potentially, the more sensitive data on your laptop.
And hackers are not the only ones to blame. Smart appliance companies collect our data, and most of us will need to get used to reading Privacy Policies now, not just instruction manuals.
What Can We Do?
When it comes to keeping your data safe, it feels like there’s only so much you can do.
With smart assistants like Alexa or Siri, you should start by digging through the Settings and trying to find ways to opt out from helping to improve the device, for example.
After you’ve chosen, it also wouldn’t hurt to set up a VPN on your smart device (if available) or on your router. A VPN is a sure way to add that extra layer of security that can help when facing hacks. (Also read: Malicious VPN Apps: How to Protect Your Data.)
In an era where the internet has taken over every part of our lives, the idea we’ll be able to completely avoid smart devices seems far-fetched. So gather as much information as you can, and make informed decisions when purchasing smart devices.
Once you purchase them, take every precaution to keep your data as private as possible.