Have you ever had the oppressive feeling that someone is watching you? Then you turn around and see nothing special. Depending on where you were, you might not have quite imagined it. There are billions of things you feel every day. They are hidden everywhere, in plain sight – in your TV, fridge, car and office. These things know more about you than you can possibly imagine, and many of them communicate that information over the Internet.
In 2007, it was hard to imagine that the revolution of useful apps and services that smartphones ushered in. But they came with costs in terms of intrusiveness and loss of privacy† if computer scientists who studies data management and privacy, we find that with internet connectivity extended to devices in homes, offices and cities, privacy is at risk more than ever.
internet of things
Your appliances, car and home are designed to make your life easier and to automate tasks you do every day: turn the lights on and off when you enter and leave a room, remind you that your tomatoes are about to spoil, personalize 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 seek help and correlate data. Without internet access, your smart thermostat can collect data about you, but it doesn’t know the weather forecast and isn’t powerful enough to process all the information to decide what to do.
But it’s not just the things in your home that communicate over the Internet. Workplaces, shopping centers and cities are also getting smarter and the smart devices in those places have similar demands. In fact, the Internet of Things (IoT) is already widely used in transport and logistics, agriculture and agriculture and industrial automation. There were approximately 22 billion Internet-connected devices in use worldwide in 2018, and the number is expected to grow to more than 50 billion by 2030†
What these things know about you
Smart devices collect a wide variety 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. On the less obvious end of the spectrum, things like smart TVs cameras and microphones to spy on userssmart light bulbs track your sleep and heart rateand smart vacuum cleaners recognize objects in your home and map every inch of them†
Sometimes this oversight is marketed as a feature. For example, some Wi-Fi routers can collect information about users’ whereabouts in the home and even coordinate with other smart devices to sense movement†
Manufacturers typically promise that only automated decision-making systems and not humans will see your data. But this is not always the case. For example, Amazon employees listen to some conversations with Alexatranscribe and annotate them before they are fed 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 can be vulnerable to hackers anywhere in the world, and few internet-connected consumer devices are very secure†
Understand your vulnerabilities
Some devices, such as smart speakers or cameras, allow users to occasionally turn them off for privacy. But even if this is an option, disconnecting the devices from the internet can severely limit their usability. You also don’t have that option if you’re in workspaces, malls, or smart cities, so you can be vulnerable even if you don’t own any smart devices.
That is why it is important as a user to make an informed decision by understanding the tradeoffs between privacy and comfort when buying, installing and using an internet-connected device. This is not always easy. Studies have shown that, for example, owners of smart home personal assistants have an incomplete understanding what data the devices collect, where the data is stored and who has access to it.
Governments around the world have enacted laws to protect privacy and give people more control over their data. Some examples are the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)† This allows you, for example, submit a Data Subject Access Request (DSAR) to the organization that collects your information from an Internet-connected device. The organizations are required to respond to requests within those jurisdictions within one month and explain what data is collected, how it is used within the organization and whether it is shared with third parties.
Limit the privacy damage
Regulation is an important step; however, their enforcement will likely take some time to catch up with the ever-growing population of internet-connected devices. In the meantime, there are things you can do to take advantage of some of the benefits of an Internet connection without giving away an inordinate amount of personal data.
If you own a smart device, you can take steps to keep it secure and minimize the risks to your privacy. The Federal Trade Commission offers: suggestions for securing your internet connected devices† Two important steps are to regularly update the device’s firmware and go through the settings and disable data collection unrelated to what you want the device to do. The Online Trust Alliance offers extra tips and a checklist for consumers to ensure safe and private use of consumer internet-connected devices.
If you’re in doubt about purchasing an Internet-connected device, find out what data it captures and the manufacturer’s data management policies from independent sources such as Mozilla’s privacy not included† By using this information, you can choose a version of the smart device you want from a manufacturer that takes the privacy of its users seriously.
[Over 150,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]
Last but not least, you can pause and think about whether you really need all your devices to be smart. For example, are you willing to give away information about yourself in order to verbally instruct your coffee maker to make you coffee†