(ORDO NEWS) — Have you ever had the feeling that someone is watching you? Then you turn around and see nothing out of the ordinary.
However, depending on where you are, you might think that this is not entirely true. Billions of things feel you every day. They are everywhere, hidden in plain sight – inside your TV, refrigerator, car and office. These things know more about you than you can imagine, and many of them transmit this information over the Internet.
In 2007, it was hard to imagine the revolution in useful apps and services that smartphones would bring. But they came at a price in the form of intrusiveness and loss of privacy.
As computer scientists studying data management and privacy, we believe that with the spread of the Internet to devices in homes, offices, and cities, privacy is at greater risk than ever.
Internet of Things
Your appliances, car, and home are designed to make your life easier and automate the tasks you perform daily: turn the lights on and off when you enter and leave the room, remind you that your tomatoes are about to go bad, personalize the temperature in the house depending on the weather and the preferences of each person in the family.
To work their magic, they need the internet to communicate and compare data. Without Internet access, your smart thermostat can collect data about you, but it doesn’t know what the weather forecast is and isn’t powerful enough to process all the information and decide what to do.
But it’s not just the things in your home that communicate over the Internet. Workplaces, shopping malls and cities are also getting smarter, and smart devices in these places are making similar demands.
In fact, the Internet of Things (IoT) is already widely used in transportation and logistics, agriculture and farming, and industrial automation. In 2018, there were about 22 billion internet-connected devices in use around the world, and this number is projected to grow to over 50 billion by 2030.
What do these devices know about you?
Smart devices collect a wide range 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 actions.
At the less obvious end of the spectrum, things like smart TVs use cameras and microphones to spy on users, smart light bulbs track your sleep and heart rate, and smart vacuum cleaners recognize objects in your home and map every inch of it.
Sometimes this observation is advertised as a feature. For example, some Wi-Fi routers can collect information about the location of users in the home and even coordinate with other smart devices to sense movement.
Manufacturers usually promise that only automated decision-making systems will see your data, not people. But it is not always the case. For example, Amazon workers listen in on some Alexa conversations, transcribe them, and annotate them before passing them on to automated decision-making systems.
But even restricting access to personal data for automated decision-making systems can have undesirable consequences. Any private data transmitted over the Internet can be vulnerable to hackers anywhere in the world, and few consumer devices connected to the Internet are very secure.
Understand your vulnerabilities
Some devices, such as smart speakers or cameras, may sometimes be turned off by users to maintain privacy. However, even if it is possible, disconnecting devices from the Internet can significantly limit their usefulness.
You also don’t have that option when you’re in workplaces, malls, or smart cities, so you might be vulnerable even if you don’t have smart devices.
Therefore, as a user, it is important to make an informed decision, understanding the trade-off between privacy and comfort when buying, installing and using an Internet-connected device.
It’s not always easy. Research has shown that, for example, owners of personal smart home assistants have an incomplete understanding of what data these devices collect, where this data is stored, and who can access it.
Governments around the world have passed laws to protect privacy and give people more control over their data. Examples include the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
Thanks to them, for example, you can submit a data subject access request (DSAR) to an organization that collects your data from an internet-connected device. Organizations are required to respond to requests in these jurisdictions within a month explaining what data is collected, how it is used within the organization, and whether it is shared with third parties.
Limit damage to privacy
Regulations are an important step, but their implementation will likely take some time to keep up with the ever-increasing number of Internet-connected devices. In the meantime, you can enjoy some of the benefits of Internet-connected devices without sharing too much personal data.
If you have a smart device, you can take steps to protect it and minimize the risks to your privacy.
The Federal Trade Commission offers recommendations for protecting devices connected to the Internet. The two key steps are to regularly update the device’s firmware and review its settings to disable data collection that is not related to what you want the device to do.
The Online Trust Alliance provides additional tips and a checklist for consumers to ensure they use their Internet-connected devices safely and privately.
If you are unsure about buying an Internet-connected device, check with independent sources such as Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included what data it collects and what the manufacturer’s data management policy is. Using this information, you will be able to select the version of the smart device you need from a manufacturer that takes the privacy of its users seriously.
Last but not least, you can pause and consider whether you really need all your devices to be “smart”. For example, are you willing to hand over information about yourself so that you can verbally order your coffee maker to make coffee for you?
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