Science, Tech & Environment

Don't look now, but our smart machines may be sharing data about you with... anyone

smart-crockpot.jpg

This crock-pot can be controlled remotely via a smartphone — just one example of appliances getting a whole lot smarter.

Credit:

Steve Marcus/Reuters

We are entering a new era of Internet connectivity — the Internet of Things. Suddenly our devices are much more than just the computers we can hold in our laps.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

These new devices collect information and make decisions on their own. What does this mean for us?

Bruce Schneier, an author and security technologist who has written several articles about the darker side of the Internet of Things, describes the new situation this way:

“The Internet of yesterday was the Internet of the things we typed into it. It was Facebook. It was text messages. It was a lot of data, but it was data that we gave it. Now the Internet is starting to look around for itself,” he says. 

Schneier says the Internet of Things has a set of eyes and ears that it never had before. And this raises troubling questions about privacy and security. 

“Fundamentally,” he says, “these devices are collecting data and disseminating data. And the question is: Who has access to it and under what authority? What kind of unauthorized access is there? What kind of secondary uses are there?”

Schneier points to the proliferation of sensors of all kinds that are becoming part of our daily lives. Cameras that are motion-activated; a refrigerator that can detect barcodes and notify us when the milk is about to spoil; devices in your car that know where the car is going, what it's doing, how it's working. All of these objects have Internet connectivity and sensors that are collecting data.

Even if you don’t own the latest Internet-connected gadget, you are probably carrying one of the world’s most effective tracking devices in your pocket.

“If you are concerned about surveillance data,” Schneier says, “you don’t have to go much further than your cellphone. It’s a device that knows exactly where you are at any moment. It keeps strong tabs on what you are doing, who you’re communicating with. That sort of information is very valuable to both marketers and to governments.”

There's really only one way to “opt out” of having your every move tracked by your devices: don’t buy them. But, of course, it really isn’t that easy. Many devices keeping tabs on us aren't necessarily even our own.

“We’re being tracked in stores,” Schneier says. “There are now ways that marketers will track us as we go through department stores or supermarkets, based on our movements and the devices we carry. All of these sensors give the Internet and those who access the data this very large envelope of knowledge about us.”

So, you might ask, why are businesses and government so interested in us? Why do they bother collecting all this data?

“They collect data for the purpose of psychological manipulation,” Schneier says. “Advertising. That’s the whole point of the business model of the Internet — surveillance.” 

What’s more, Schneier adds, all this collected data is being bought and sold. Here in the US, we have no rights to see the data collected about us. We have no say over who can buy it, who can sell it or who can use it.  And we know that the government is often getting a copy of this data for their own various purposes. 

Still, Schneier is eager to emphasize that there is an upside to the new Internet reality.

“The Internet of Things is something that has enormous marvels. That’s why we’re headed towards it. These security concerns are real, but they are around the edges,” he explains. 

“We’re actually going to like the fact that a refrigerator is going to warn us when we're out of milk and we should pick it up on the way home — because that's kind of cool. And it will probably be delivered by drone automatically. Who knows what’ll happen?”

“This is science fiction stuff and we like it. Most people are going to ignore the security concerns and that’s going to be a problem, but I would never say, 'Don't do this! Stop the future!' The future is where the fun is,” he adds.

This story is from an interview done by our partner Science Friday, which covers science, technology and other cool stuff.