You Can Run, but You Can’t Hide

blg02x-image-edWith the holiday season comes a frantic search for gifts, and even average users have started to ramp up their arsenal with things like smart watches, tablets, and home devices connected to the internet. This year, personal home assistants, like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, have made their way into many people’s collections. They are a little like Siri on steroids – they can answer queries, tell you what’s on your schedule for the day, as well as interact with other connected devices you may have, like Amazon’s Fire Stick, to play something on your TV.

So what’s the big deal? If we’re already carrying stuff like this around with us on our phones, why are we seeing all the headlines? Well, the newest personal devices are always listening – and this freaks a lot of people out. Of course, there’s a button to turn this feature on and off. Though we probably shouldn’t worry [i] about what Google and Amazon are doing with all this ambient sound, the eerie similarity to a surveillance device, for some people, is just too much. While you can keep yourself from purchasing these kinds of devices now and in the future, you’ll never be able to control all the data collected about you.

It’s hard to worry about surveillance. Studies have suggested that the average person is caught on video camera almost 70 times a day [ii]. Further, many of us give tons of personal information to companies like Google and Amazon every day anyway. It’s pretty safe to say we believe our data to be “safe” with these companies. However, there are many reasons to think critically about how these kinds of “smart” devices are going to affect our futures.

A 2015 murder case in Arkansas [iii] has recently shed light on Amazon’s approach to consumer privacy. While Amazon seems to be standing strong – which, personally, I support, because it’s very unlikely that Amazon actually has any data of use to the case – the end result is yet to be seen. What’s more interesting to me are the other details of the case. The murder happened in what was a sort of “smart house,” and there was a lot more than just the Amazon Echo collecting data about the inhabitants and guests. Included was a smart water meter. Investigators already got information from this device (I haven’t found how), and may use measurements showing lots of water use in a certain time frame lining up with the time of death of the victim to show the covering up of a crime. The defendant’s lawyer says the device malfunctioned. In the same vein, Amazon doesn’t guarantee that the Echo’s “functionality or content … is accurate, reliable, or complete.” If they gave up the data, it could be wrong or incomplete, and interpreted harmfully.

In the coming years, it seems that cases like the one in the Arkansas “smart home” are going to be setting some very serious legal precedents, and companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google, that control the data, are going to have a huge hand in how it all plays out. In my last piece for TDAN [iv], I talked about IoT (Internet of Things) creeping into our lives on all fronts. It’s more than likely we’re going to begin trusting our “surveillance”-like data to companies that are a lot less practiced and equipped to deal with the threats and responsibilities that come along with all of that consumer data and keeping devices secure. Things will probably get a lot worse before they get better. But for now, I say, keep the Echo on. Ignorance is bliss, and for now, that’s the state the world seems to be in. Anyway, what would be the point if you felt you had to go turn the damn thing on and off every time you wanted to use it?

One thing we have to be very careful of is how we start to experiment with new technologies. Crime prediction algorithms combined with a bunch of listening TVs, speakers, and even coffee makers around? Yuck! Not a world I want to be a test dummy in! Unfortunately, we’re kind of already there [v]. Only time will tell how companies both large and small, lawmakers, and consumers are going to keep us from – I almost hate to say it – a 1984-like future.


 

References

[i] Palmer, Shelly. “Just How Dangerous is Alexa?” LinkedIn.

[ii] UK. “CCTV Camera Estimates Halved by Police”. BBC.

[iii] McLaughlin, Eliott C. & Keith Allen. “Alexa, Can You Help with this Murder Case?” CNN.

[iv] Wright, Haleigh. “Today’s Crypto-Frankenstein.” The Data Administration Newsletter (TDAN.com).

[v] PredPol, The Predictive Policing Company

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About Haleigh Wright

Haleigh Wright is the Assistant to the Publisher of The Data Administration Newsletter (TDAN.com). Haleigh graduated from The University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Scientific Computing in 2015, and she is now pursuing her PhD in Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she is an National Science Foundation IGERT Network Science Trainee. Her research interests include computational sustainability, data analysis, data security and privacy, network science, and cryptography. After Haleigh concludes her studies, she plans to enter Industry, with particular interest in entrepreneurial ventures.

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