There’s nowhere to hide from the assault on privacy. It’s what threatens modern technology-oriented life and makes it completely different from life just 20 years ago or less.
At first glance, invasion of privacy is not happening within our homes. After all, a man’s home is his castle. If the historic perception of privacy was a man’s right to be let alone, where else could that be other than within his own four walls? That is the physical space where he can develop his character and his views, free from the watchful eyes of the public and the expectations of others.
The modern threat to privacy is not limited to the outside world. It is a dramatic change in scope. The inside and outside are becoming inextricably entwined. What previously existed only outside now penetrates deep inside the home – partly in obvious ways, but not completely.
People use the internet at home. They surf the web, send emails, play video games with others, and more. If they have intellect, they know that every action leaves electronic footprints, and this information is collected, stored and analyzed in ways ordinary users don’t understand. This data makes it possible to analyze their hidden preferences – sexual, mental, habits and relationships with partners. Even if the information is generally used only for advertising purposes, in recent years “advertising” has come to include political manipulation.
The smart home, whose systems are very expensive, continuously transmits information about everyone who enters the home. Anyone who wants to remotely control the air conditioner or the new water dispenser unwittingly provides an abundance of data to corporations. Until now, these corporations did not monetize personal data. They simply manufactured air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines or water dispensers. Now they seek to maximize their profits through big data analysis and personalization. The smart TV transmits data about the residents’ viewing habits. It is often voice activated, and therefore monitors the sounds around it. Sometimes it uses face recognition. The cumulative data from all these features creates an amazingly detailed picture of the people in the house and their behavior. You just wanted to air-condition your home, for example, but meanwhile you unknowingly broadcast detailed information about everyone living there.
Tens of millions of households in the United States, if not more, use ‘personal digital assistants’. These – by Amazon, Google Home, Echo, Apple Siri and others like them – monitor sound in the house, and when they detect the code words that activate them, they provide answers to questions or order products and services for the family. Questions and instructions are transmitted to the servers of the relevant service providers, where they are stored. And so, the companies collect even more data. It is no surprise that recordings collected from Amazon’s digital assistant, for example, have already been introduced into evidence in murder trials in the United States. New information is added to the mountains of data already stored. For example, consider how much data Google receives from some 200 services it offers its users, all by means of one user account
And that’s not nearly the end of it.
On-line sex toys, such as smart vibrators, send data to their manufacturers’ servers. People’s most intimate information will be transmitted from their homes. Smart “talking” dolls send information about the younger members of the family. Companies have already been fined for illegally collecting data from children, and a class action suit has been filed against the maker of Barbie dolls, alleging invasion of children’s privacy. The FBI has warned that the widespread capabilities of web-enabled toys - such as microphones for recording and geolocation monitoring - could risk the privacy of children that use them or are merely in their proximity, due to the scope of personal data they collect. Indeed, a hack of the Vtech toy manufacturer app revealed personal data of 6.4 million children.
And even that’s not the end.
Your new car collects data about you: where you go, how fast you drive, when you turned on the lights or the blinkers, how you use the brakes, the times of your journeys, where you park and so on. Your car is internet-connected, so the data is sent to car and car-accessory manufacturers.
You know that you don’t have to get into your car to have all kinds of actors collect information about you. But you’re not aware of everything: every participant in modern life carries on his person the devices that monitor his movements: a cellphone sends data to the tele-communications company, to the operating system manufacturer (usually Google), to the device manufacturer, to the companies that operate the installed apps, to the advertising services that piggyback on those apps, and to operators of other added capabilities.
And it doesn’t even stop there.
People cannot escape their own bodies. If they need medical devices such as pacemakers, they may find themselves broadcasting sensitive data about themselves to corporations on another continent, in a different legal environment and foreign culture, who can monitor their patient information in real time.
Each distinct transfer of data can be justified. But apart from the invasion of privacy, every online system is exposed to security vulnerabilities and breaches. And although the subject of this post is not security breaches, it should be pointed out that a recent discovery found that about 750,000 Medtronic defibrillators – a device that transmits an electric pulse to prevent cardiac arrest – are exposed to cyber attacks that could harm patients.
“You have zero privacy anyway, get over it”: these were the words of Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems in 1999, exactly 20 years ago. Perhaps he was exaggerating back then; today, he’s certainly right.
First published in Mind the Gap, the author's privacy blog in Haartez
[Translation by Tomedes.co.il Smart Human Translations]