(ORDO NEWS) — Have you ever felt the pulling sensation that someone is watching you? You turn around and see nothing out of the ordinary.
Billions of things “shepherd” you every day. They are everywhere, hidden in plain sight – in your TV, refrigerator, car and office. These things know more about you than you can imagine, and many of them pass this information on to the Internet.
In 2007, it was hard to imagine the revolution of useful apps and services that smartphones ushered in. But it came at a price in terms of intrusiveness and loss of privacy.
Computer scientists studying data management and privacy have found that when Internet connectivity extends 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 daily tasks: turn the lights on and off when you enter and leave the room, remind you that your tomatoes are about to go bad, adjust the temperature in the house depending depending on the weather and the preferences of each family member.
To work wonders, they need the Internet to ask for help and collate data. Without internet access, your smart thermostat might 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 malls and cities are also getting smarter, and smart devices in these places are facing similar demands.
In fact, the Internet of Things (IoT) is already widely used in transport and logistics, agriculture 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 things know about you
Smart devices collect a wide range of data about their users. Smart security cameras and smart assistants are, after all, 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, 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 sold as a positive feature. For example, some Wi-Fi routers can collect user location information and even coordinate with other smart devices to detect movement.
Manufacturers usually promise that your data will only be visible to automated decision-making systems, not to humans.
But it is not always the case. For example, Amazon employees listen in on some Alexa conversations, transcribe them, and comment on them before entering them into automated decision-making systems.
But even restricting access to personal data by automated decision-making systems can have undesirable consequences. Any personal data that is transmitted over the Internet can be vulnerable to hackers anywhere in the world, and few consumer devices connected to the Internet are completely secure.
Understand your vulnerabilities
Some devices, such as smart speakers or cameras, may be turned off by users from time to time for privacy purposes. However, even if this is possible, disconnecting devices from the Internet can seriously limit their usefulness.
You don’t have this option when you’re in workplaces, shopping malls, or smart cities, so you might be vulnerable even if you don’t have smart devices.
Therefore, as a user, it is important for you to make an informed decision, understanding the trade-off between privacy and comfort when buying, installing and using a device connected to the Internet.
It’s not always easy. Research has shown that, for example, owners of personal smart home assistants have an incomplete understanding of what data devices collect, where this data is stored, and who can access it.
Governments around the world are passing laws to protect privacy and give people more control over their data. Some such examples are the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
Limit the damage to privacy
The rules are an important step – however, their application will likely take some time to catch up with the ever-increasing number of devices connected to the Internet. In the meantime, there are things you can do to take advantage of your Internet connection without exposing too much personal information.
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 ways to protect devices connected to the Internet. The two key steps are updating the device’s firmware regularly, reviewing its settings, and turning off any data collection unrelated to what you want the device to do.
If you are unsure about buying an Internet connected device, check what data it collects and what the manufacturer’s data management policy is from independent sources such as Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included. Using this information, you can choose the right version of a smart device from a manufacturer that takes the privacy of its users seriously.
Last but not least, you might want to pause and consider whether or not you really need all of your devices to be smart. For example, are you willing to provide information about yourself to verbally order the coffee machine to make coffee for you?
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