Tegan Tuesday: “Smart” devices are giving corporations the ability to surveil you and your family 24/7

Digital security is an actual nightmare. We are surrounded by internet-capable technology at all times. Even if you personally do not have a smart watch, a smart phone, GoogleGlass, a car run through a computer, a smart doorbell, a smart washer, a smart fridge, a smart printer, a smart tv, a smart thermostat… the chances are incredibly high that your neighbor does.

And every single one of them is tracking you.

How could advertisers know what to sell you if it didn’t know that you mentioned ‘oreos’ in a conversation just seconds ago? What makes it even more frustrating is that this kind of technology is useful.

A woman I know with mobility issues and extreme temperature regulation problems has a smart thermostat because she can adjust it from her phone; an obviously helpful aspect for someone who’s bed-bound and having temperature problems. What is less helpful is the built-in feature where the power company can override any of her settings and decide FOR HER what temperature her house should be. Another woman I know has her smart watch connected to her pacemaker, all the better to moniter her health. Many of the technologies in my earlier list have equally helpful aspects to them. But just as people with sleep apnea have their CPAP machines locked or taken away from a perceived ‘lack of compliance’, each of these life-saving technologies are primarily being used to erode personal liberty and privacy.

What is honestly even more frustrating than this kind of monitoring is how easy they are to hack. There are countless stories of baby monitors being hacked, not to mention cars, smart tvs, and smart fridges. Each one of these systems, logged into your personal network, is a door to your personal data that could be used in a myriad of ways. Some of the reasons for this is that tech companies often don’t bother putting any effort into dealing with security. How many of us have gotten letters or emails informing us that Macy’s, or WalMart had a security breach and “your credit card information may be among those affected”? But with the prevalence of technology in every aspect of life, that risk is both compounded, and an expected part of life.

Ah well. We are adults. We can make the call about what is an acceptable invasion of privacy for improved ease of living or comfort. What then about the increasing amount of technology on children? We know the effects of long-term surveillance on developing minds: extremely negative. There have been discussions of the the impact of Elf on the Shelf (and it’s 24/7 surveillance of the child) for nearly a decade.

This was about the status of the interaction of life and technology up until 2020. Then the pandemic and its resulting lockdowns began. Jobs and schools alike went remote. Workers were observed at all times (Fun fact: my admin job in 2009 put surveillance software on my computer, so my boss could observe every action, every mouse movement, every keyboard entry. My boss could also override my own actions on my computer. I put in my two weeks that day. But how easy is it to find that type of job without it now?) But of course the mandatory laptops and tablets provided to students are monitoring their every move, too. In the case discussed above, think about the long-term implications of your child accidentally uploading child pornography just because their phone put their (fully clothed) selfie on the cloud or the school district’s network? This is a problem with far-reaching implications and I Want It Gone. The reckless and unrelenting monitoring of private information needs to stop.

Which brings me to the spot of good news: remote test proctoring software has been ruled a violation of constitutional rights. Cleveland State University, much like every other university on the planet, used a third-party monitoring program to assess whether students taking remote exams were cheating (My opinions about the over-reliance on exams and a pathological fear of ‘cheating’ is a different story). But a student went to court claiming that the proctoring software, which scanned his room and stored that information, was a violation of his privacy. The judge agreed! This type of monitoring is a violation of the Fourth Amendment right protecting citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. Which is absolutely wonderful news! Now to get from Stage: ‘It’s Illegal’, to Stage: ‘It’s Not Used.’

This is a long fight ahead, since laws always lag behind technology by at least a decade. But it’s a start.

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  1. sonofrojblake says

    My only disagreement with this article is the title.

    “Smart” devices have, for years now, given corporations the ability to surveil you and your family 24/7″


    Other than that, bang on.

    I’m slightly surprised that there’s not a market for “smart-ish” devices. It’s not beyond the wit of makers to build stuff that does most of the “smart home” functionality, but without the surveillance. A good mate of mine has his central heating controlled via an Arduino. It does all kinds of clever stuff, but absolutely no information about it leaves his house. Not everyone has the ability to build such a system (I don’t), but I’d pay to have it installed.

    I don’t use streaming music services (Apple Music, Spotify etc.), which makes me unusual among my friends group, even as we ease into our fifties. Instead, I use a speaker in my kitchen and another in my bedroom that connects wirelessly to my router, and connected to that router is a hard drive with my music collection on it. I access the collection via an app on my phone. Annoyingly, the manufacturers can diddle with the interface at will, and could in principle brick the thing tomorrow if they wanted to. What they can’t do is try to serve me ads or recommend music to me – there’s simply no avenue for that. In principle they can probably monitor what I’m listening to – but that’s acceptable to me. “Comfortably Numb”, AGAIN? Yes, again.

    My wife wanted smart heating. I demurred. She pointed out our neighbours had it. I stood firm. Our neighbours came over to our house for three nights in a row when there was a problem with their router which meant their heating had crashed. The James Webb telescope was not available at the time to observe the boundaries of my smugness.

    More and more as I age I feel like life on this planet reached some kind of peak between about 2005 and 2010, and has been on an accelerating slide downwards since. Creeping automation and monitoring is a part of this impression. I see little prospect of holding back the tide, because it’s all so damned convenient and whizzy and clever.

    (Side note: I’d been watching Star Trek TNG for a while before I realised that it’s not depicting a utopia, it’s depicting a terrifying surveillance state. Starfleet personnel can routinely say things like “where is Jaresh-Inyo right now?”, and they take for granted the fact that the computer will come back with “he’s on deck three”, or “he’s on the surface of the planet in a restaurant called Fat Mike’s”, or “he left Earth three days ago on a transport headed for Cardassia Prime”. Everyone’s under surveillance at all times, and nobody seems to mind or even question it. You don’t notice at first, but when you do, it’s horrible. It’s not just Starfleet personnel, who might legitimately expect to be monitored while deployed, but literally everyone. That’s our future, if not yet (quite) our present.)

  2. says

    Yeah, the title was getting overly wordy and I’ve got other things to focus on today. That’s definitely my fault, not Tegan’s

  3. says

    On the concept of surveillance, it’s definitely one of those things that’s good or bad depending on the larger system in which we live. Star Trek sort of became a bit of a dystopia as they explored the narrative ramifications of the society they had created – clearly social, political, and economic hierarchies were still very much a thing in the Federation, and that makes surveillance far more dangerous, IMO.

    That said, with things as they are, it’s just going to make it that much harder to build the kind of system in which it could be more of a benefit than harm.

  4. Katydid says

    What is an app? It’s an executable program. What does it do? The end user has absolutely no idea because they can’t unpack the code. Where is their data being sent? They don’t know.

    In the meantime there are app-controlled microwaves (WHY? you have to open them up to put the food in and open it up again to take the food out) and app-controlled washing machines (same) and push vacuum (you’re already there pushing it). There’s even an app-controlled toothbrush–you have to pick it up and put it in your mouth, but once it’s there, you need your phone to brush?)

    More terrifying are app-controlled medical devices. One of my coworkers is a type 1 diabetic, and his insurance will only cover the continuous glucose monitors. They glitch more than they work and push too much or too little insulin. Also, they can be hacked.

  5. lochaber says

    I was almost an “early adopter” at one point, and I remember getting the G1 phone as soon as I could back in ?2008?

    And now, I’m tempted to go back to a “dumb phone” I do find them difficult to text on, and on rare occasions, I’ve found having access to google maps while in unfamiliar locations really useful for navigating public transit, especially getting someplace unexpected through using multiple transit agencies.

    I think I occasionally annoy some of my supervisors at work, because I often don’t keep my phone on me, and I refuse to install and use various apps. I figure if it’s that important for me to do things via smartphone, they can pay for a work smartphone and service, but I haven’t really had to push back on that so far.

    I’ve gotten into so many ridiculous arguments on the reddit survival forum about GPS/phones vs map and compass, before I gave up and stopped logging into reddit.

    recently I was trying to find a small dehumidifier for a project at work, and it’s ridiculous how many of them had Wi-fi and BlueTooth as selling points… like, why the fuck does a dehumidifier need internet connectivity? what is wrong with this world…

  6. Dunc says

    I’ve long avoided “smart” devices as far as reasonably practical (the main exception being my phone, which is just too damn useful to live without), partly on the privacy concerns, but mainly on the basis that anything that can go wrong will, so simplicty is a desireable trait. I ideally like things I can repair myself when they break down.

    The implications of ubiquitous surveillance was one of the themes Iain M. Banks played with in his Culture novels – he seemed to view it as a pretty mixed bag, even with the assumption of benevolence on the part of the Minds. Unfortunately, we definately can’t assume benevolence on the part of the “slow AIs” running our society… Thankfully, my boss has neither the time nor the inclination to monitor my activities.

    The one area where I can see definite advantages is in active demand management for the electrical grid. As we move to a higher proportion of non-dispatchable and unpredictable supply, there is certainly an argument for being able to shift demand to when we have more power available. For example, my house is heated with old-fashioned electric storage heaters, which heat up using cheaper off-peak electricity overnight. That made sense when the grid was mostly fed from coal and nuclear, but makes much less sense now… However, it’s not in principle a massive change to switch from a fixed time schedule to a more flexible schedule based on the availability of excess power. (The heaters are connected to a separate supply which I believe is already remotely switched.)

  7. K says

    My employer doesn’t allow cellphones at work and as time has gone on, there’s been an obvious generational change in the ability to work and attend meetings and keep the brain occupied. Younger workers who grew up with a phone at their hip are less able to focus on anything for any length of time.

    Before the pandemic, the spouse and I went on a self-drive vacation to Ireland, armed with a paper map and a list of B&Bs. We had a blast driving around and exploring things.

  8. planter says

    Interesting post. I also refused to put a smart thermostat in our house. The thing that bothers me is that there is no need for the data to leave your house. Download the algorithm updates if needed, upload low temperature alarms (useful if your heating fails at -30 C when you are away), but otherwise process data locally.

    Some smart applications are useful enough that I ignore some of the implications. For example the app that adds the my location coordinates to the metadata on a picture on my camera. Very useful when I am taking a couple of hundred pictures of plants over a day.

    My University chose not to go with proctoring software for online exams for all the reasons pointed out above. The advice we got was 1) make your exams open book and ask more complex questions than just factual recall, 2) use randomized test banks (i.e. not everyone gets exactly the same question) and 3) monitor as you mark for unusual/identical answers. We did catch a group of students using Chegg that way.

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