BALTIMORE, Maryland— Do you sometimes have the frightening feeling of being watched? According to two computer scientists, you’re probably right, but it’s not somebody looking at you is Something – and this thing is smart technology.
In a paper by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Roberto Yus, and Penn State’s Primal Pappachan, the team warns that billions of digital devices scan and detect your movements every day. Some of them are sitting right in front of you – inside TVs, cars, offices, and even your refrigerator.
Back in 2007, few could have imagined the countless apps the company now uses on their smartphones every day. However, Yus and Pappachan argue that this technological revolution has taken a toll on our privacy, as internet connectivity now reaches people in more places than ever before.
For all these smart devices to do their job, they need an internet connection so they can correlate all the data they collect about you. For example, a smart thermostat in your home spends its day collecting information about you and your preferences. However, without an internet connection to see the weather forecast, the thermostat can’t decide how to properly adjust the temperature in your home.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as researchers say devices that collect data about everything people do are infiltrating our workspaces, malls and cities.
“In fact, the Internet of Things (IoT) is already widely used in transportation and logistics, agriculture and farming, and industrial automation. There were approximately 22 billion Internet-connected devices in use in the world in 2018, and this number is expected to reach more than 50 billion by 2030,” the team explains in an article published in The conversation.
The problem of privacy
So what are all these smart devices doing? It all depends on what the device does. Smart security cameras and home assistants like Alexa are basically just cameras and microphones that record you and your activities all day long.
While these examples may seem obvious, you might be surprised to know that smart TVs can do the exact same thing. Meanwhile, smart bulbs monitor your sleep and heart rate, and smart vacuum cleaners map the interior of your home as they recognize objects to avoid bumping into them.
While some products market these features and others claim your data won’t end up in other people’s hands, the team says that’s not always true.
“Manufacturers usually promise that only automated decision-making systems, 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,” explain Yus and Pappachan.
Even if you limit the amount of data and access to manage your devices, researchers say that their connection to the Internet can still make you vulnerable. All private data shared over the Internet can become a target for hackers. Additionally, the team warns that few consumer Internet-connected devices are completely secure.
Worse still, many smart devices become virtually useless if you disconnect them from the internet. Moreover, you don’t even have the option to choose privacy over connectivity when it comes to devices in a public place such as an office or a mall.
Will the law protect your privacy?
Although governments around the world are taking steps to protect the privacy of their citizens, the authors say enforcement of these rules is still catching up with the ever-increasing number of internet-connected devices.
“If you own a smart device, you can take steps to secure it and minimize the risk to your privacy,” Yus and Pappachan say. “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 team also recommends anyone looking to buy a smart device to first find out what data it collects and what the manufacturer’s data management policies are according to an independent source.