Monday 18 December 2017

The Spying Game - how our gadgets are snooping on us

The revelation that vacuum cleaners may be snooping on us has prompted new concerns about what gadgets do with personal data

Somebody's watching you: Roomba's iRobot vacuum cleaner has been discreetly mapping owners’ houses
Somebody's watching you: Roomba's iRobot vacuum cleaner has been discreetly mapping owners’ houses
Say cheese: Kellyanne Conway says microwaves could be turned into surveillance cameras
Ed Power

Ed Power

Is your hoover snooping on you? This was the chilling possibility raised by news that a popular brand of "robot" vacuum cleaner has been discreetly mapping owners' houses, with the manufacturer formulating plans to share this potentially lucrative data with third parties.

The prospect of Roomba's iRobot automatised vacuum cleaner passing on intimate details about the width of your hall or the configuration of your settee to Amazon, Apple and Google prompted an immediate firestorm - and a swift climbdown from the company (strange, as it was Roomba which floated the notion in the first instance).

Roomba's chief executive said: "iRobot will never sell your data. Customers have control over sharing it. I want to make very clear that this is how data will be handled in the future."

This isn't the first time consumers may have been alarmed to discover their gadgets could be tracking their behaviour. It was revealed last year by Wikileaks that the CIA had hacked a brand of Samsung smart television so that it could record the conversations of users.

Say cheese: Kellyanne Conway says microwaves could be turned into surveillance cameras
Say cheese: Kellyanne Conway says microwaves could be turned into surveillance cameras

The arrival of voice-activated personal assistants such as Amazon's Echo, meanwhile, means that more and more of us are sharing personal space with technology that, in order to properly do its job, is required to eavesdrop. In March, Amazon was required to hand over data recorded by an Echo after it emerged the device may have "witnessed" a murder. For good or ill, we are being monitored in ways we cannot begin to fathom.

Even toys can be turned into surveillance tools. An outcry erupted in 2015 as it emerged Mattel's Hello Barbie could be hacked and used to keep tabs on kids. Less sensationally there was unease over Mattel potentially having access to information about your children's play habits. You expect your little girl or boy to talk to their toys - but not for the toy to record what they are saying and pass the info back to HQ.

More prosaically, we will all be aware that our mobile phones are tracking our movements and unobtrusively building a picture of where we go and with whom we hang out. That's less immediately pernicious than a robot vacuum cleaner tipping Google off as to the location of your sofa - but arguably no less unnerving.

"In 2017 are consumers really aware of how much technology is spying on us? The majority do not," says Jim O'Brien of TechBuzzIreland. "For example, you are probably reading this on your smartphone or tablet. Did you check the app permissions before you downloaded them?"

The floodgates, he warns, have only just opened.

"Smart TVs have crept into people's homes over the last few years. They have voice recognition and capture data. Fitness trackers and smart watches again capture information. With the influx of home voice-assisted speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, these are all slowly integrating into our society without many thinking about what the full potential is. When you buy your new Android device do you just skip everything to get working on it straight away?"

The debate is in many ways philosophical. In the United States the attitude can be best summed up as "buyer beware". If you own a smartphone and don't bother to check what it is doing with your data, that's your lookout. This flows from Silicon Valley's aggressively-libertarian philosophy,  in which tech gurus such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are regarded as masters of the universe who should be free to usher in the technological rapture without pesky government interference.

However, the perspective is rather different in Europe which, in contrast to the Land of the Brave, has a deeply-embedded memory of the evils a surveillance state can perpetuate.

"The tech industry runs on data. Whether it's for research and development purposes or for building better ad platforms, the ability to capture and make use of the thousands of data points we create every day is crucial to innovation," says Niall Kitson, editor of TechCentral.

"The tech sector cannot survive without a steady stream of information about how, why and where people use their products.

"For example, the more Facebook and Google know about you the better they can target advertising at you and the more you use them, the 'better' their service gets. Netflix? They commission shows based on what their subscribers already watch."

"This stems from the US notion that if you volunteer information about yourself, or fail to protect yourself from disclosing it in the first place, then that information is theirs to do with as they see fit. It's industry-led and poorly regulated.

"The EU takes a differing view. Any information you give up is your property and you have the right to know how that information is used, stored, processed, who has access to it and why.

"And, if you think information gathered about you is no longer relevant or useful, you can demand it be deleted. We've seen this happen with the so-called 'right to be forgotten' where you can submit a query to Google and have it de-indexed. About half of complaints are successful."  

The war of data harvesting is set to be ramped up next year when new EU regulations will require companies to justify what information they collect and how they use it. "If I sign up for your newsletter and you send me a direct mail from another company - that's a violation," says Kitson. "If your mailing list is hacked you have 72 hours to notify those affected, no more sitting on news of a breach for months."

What's worrying is that, EU intervention notwithstanding, the goliaths of the tech sector have no intention of weaning themselves off their addiction to data. US President Donald Trump's advisor Kellyanne Conway provoked derision when she recently asserted in a television interview that microwaves were spying on people.

But with "smart" technology soon to penetrate every aspect of our life, were her claims really that ludicrous?

Says Kitson: "iRobot, makers of the Roomba, wants to start scanning your home and selling on your floor-plans. Imagine if that kind of information got into the hands of a burglar. Or how about if your hospital hires a company to digitise its records only to have them dumped online after a security patch wasn't applied?"

A self-aware vacuum cleaner quietly making note of your lifestyle choices doesn't quite conjure up a Hunger Games-style dystopia. But it is nonetheless a pernicious scenario - one towards which society is apparently sleep marching with scarcely a shrug. Maybe we should start paying greater attention to our devices. They are certainly paying attention to us.

Irish Independent

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