Every Smart Device You Own Is Probably Spying on You

Smart devices are invading people's privacy, and what can we do about it.
smart device control

Have you ever had the uneasy feeling that someone is monitoring you? Then you turned around and couldn’t see anything unusual? Depending on where you are, it might seem difficult to imagine. But the shocking truth is that billions of smart devices are spying on you every day. They surround us – your TV, office, car, fridge, phone etc. They know a lot more about you than you would think, and many of them share your data over the Internet.

Back in 2007, it would have been difficult to predict the revolution of apps and services that smartphones ushered in. However, they came with a considerable cost: loss of privacy. As computer scientists study data management and privacy, they found that privacy is becoming more important as internet connectivity spreads to homes, companies, and cities.

Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is often used in transport and logistics, agriculture and farming, and industrial automation. About 22 billion internet-connected devices were in use globally in 2018, with that figure expected to rise to more than 50 billion by 2030

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Your car and home appliances are designed to make your life easier plus automate the tasks you perform daily. These tasks include switching lights on/off when you enter and exit a room, being reminded that your milk is about to go sour, or personalizing the house’s temperature depending on the weather and individual preferences of people living there.

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These items need the Internet to do their magic and correlate data. Without internet access, your smart thermostat can’t collect data about you. It wouldn’t know what the weather forecast was or have the processing power to decide based on all of the data. 

It’s not just your household appliances that use the Internet to communicate. Workplaces, malls, and cities are all becoming smarter, and the smart devices that operate in those environments have similar requirements.

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What these Smart devices know about you

Smart devices gather a lot of information about their users. Smart security cameras and Smart assistants in your home collect audio and video information about your presence and activities.

For instance, Smart TVs use microphones and cameras to snoop on their users. Smart light bulbs monitor your heart and sleep rate. Smart vacuum cleaners identify objects in your home and map all of them together

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Surveillance is sometimes promoted as a feature. Some Wi-Fi routers can track their users’ movements around the house and even work with other Smart gadgets to detect motion. According to manufacturers, ” we promise that only automated decision-making systems and not humans will see your data.” However, this isn’t always the case.

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For instance, Amazon employees will listen to some conversations with Alexa, transcribe them, and annotate them before putting them into automated decision-making systems. Even restricting access to automated decision-making systems to personal data can have unintended implications. Any data shared over the Internet could be susceptible to hacking anywhere globally. Only a few consumer internet-connected gadgets are incredibly secure

Can you stop a Smart device from monitoring you?

The answer is Yes and no. Users can occasionally turn off devices like Smart cameras or speakers for privacy. You can disconnect your SmartTV from the Internet, but then it will severely limit its usefulness. You will lose access to integrated features like video streaming, web surfing, etc. In most cases, you can activate privacy settings, limiting some of the functions in exchange for a little more privacy when you are not using the device.

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Even if you don’t own smart devices, you could still be vulnerable in places like Smart cities, workplaces, or malls. Hence, as a user, you must make an informed decision by understanding the trade-offs between comfort and privacy when buying, installing, and using an internet-connected device. Of a truth, this is not always easy. For instance, reports have shown that owners of smart home personal assistants have insufficient knowledge of what data the gadgets gather, where the information is stored, and who has access to it.

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Government intervention in data privacy

Governments worldwide have introduced laws to protect privacy and give people more control over their data. Examples are the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and  European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Thanks to this development. For example, you can submit a Data Subject Access Request (DSAR) to the organization that collects your data from any internet-connected device. The organizations must respond to requests within those jurisdictions within a month, detailing what information is collected, how it is used, and whether or not it is shared with any third parties.

Apart from the vulnerability to hackers, you don’t have to worry about your information. You are innocent as long as you’re not doing anything illegal. The data gathered is intended to improve services offered, but of course, you should be aware of any data about you and how its handled.

What can I do to limit privacy breaches?

Understand that your activities are being tracked everywhere you go these days. Usually, in those fine-print terms of service agreement, we all skip through. Marketing agencies and departments are supported by all the valuable information you provide. Your browser and ISP track where you go and what you buy online. Facebook tracks your likes and allows advertisers to segment their audiences based upon your behaviors. Of course, it is not new. Stores have been tracking your purchasing behavior via loyalty cards for a long time.

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Meanwhile, you can do some things to benefit from being connected to the Internet without disclosing too much personal information. While regulations are a vital step, it might take some time to catch up with the enforcement of the ever-increasing population of internet-connected devices. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers suggestions on securing your internet-connected devices: (1) Regularly updating the device’s firmware (2) Going through the device’s settings and disabling any data collection unrelated to what you want the gadget to do. Consumers can use the Online Trust Alliance’s extra guidelines and checklist to ensure that their internet-connected gadgets are safe and secure.

Don’t know whether or not to buy an internet-connected item? The first step is to check what data it collects and the manufacturer’s data management practices. With this information, you can choose a version of the smart gadget that values users’ privacy. Finally, you can pause and reflect on whether you need all your devices to be Smart in the first place.

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