Do you put a piece of tape over your web camera?

Mark Zuckerberg does.

This is a thing and Zuckerberg really does it.  It’s also a thing you should think about if you have a web camera pointing into your life.  It’s a low budget firewall to protect your privacy, because hacking happens.

Hacks are definitely not a new phenomenon but the level of our exposure is.  As we gradually connect homes to the world, privacy needs more vigilance.  Web cameras allow us to see friends and family across the world, but in doing so we can allow someone to literally peer into our lives.  But looking isn’t all outsiders can do.  Now, they can listen.

Listen up

Alexa dominated CES in 2017 with fridges that listen, smart gadgets, and a more connected home.  Google launched its own smart speaker and Apple wasn’t far behind with the HomePod.  It’s an exciting development in technology, listening and responding to our commands.

The new range of smart speakers from Amazon, Apple, and Google promise the omnipotent “computer” from Star Trek and taking us further into the world of the Jetsons and control over our homes by just the command of our voice.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  This is cool.  This is exciting.  A cabinet that folds our laundry.  Lights that switch on to the perfect setting.  Thermostat the way we want it.  Oven turned on just by asking from our car 5 miles from the house.

It’s exciting.

You’ll be able to say a command and someone will listen.  Something will get done.   And best yet, you can say it without a snide comeback from a spouse or roll of the eye from the kids.

Right now, smart devices do things that are fun and sort of helpful, but not the cut and thrust of everyday living.  However, very very soon, that will change.  And Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, not to mention a slew of other start-ups will be managing your life.

So, listening will become the new doing.  But how?

Getting to know you

Like a great personal assistant, smart devices and the AI that powers them need to get to know you in order to manage your life.  Getting to know you requires learning about you and that requires data.

The good news is we make data all the time. Every time you move with your phone in your pocket.  Walk with a smartwatch.  Choose a movie on your smart TV.  And now, every time you speak.  We create more data than Amazon sells stuff.  And we’re doing it most of the time without realizing.

The not-always-great news is that we’re making data all the time.

That data is being used to learn about you.  It’s billed as a way to make your life easier, to understand you better, to serve you better, to anticipate what you want, like Batman’s faithful servant Alfred.  But it’s also about knowing you to be more able to sell to you.  To understand you are missing stuff in your life that you should probably go out and buy.

For the most part, the big providers have been vigilant guardians of your data out of both a legal and business obligation.  We’re giving it away and they’re using it to provide a better service.  Haven’t we all wanted, at one point, to walk into a local restaurant or bar and have them ask, ‘the usual?’  Knowledge of your customers is valuable.

All that information on you is valuable, however, not just to businesses.

Two sides of the law  

In the last year the debate has intensified as law enforcement has stepped up pressure on tech giants for access to information via their products.  Just recently:

Then there is the other side of the law.  Hacking is now used in relation to just about every aspect of our lives.  Elections, cars, movies, music, phones, not to mention our personal computers.

  • Or the hack of major studios like Sony, or more recently of HBO that resulted in the early release of Game of Thrones
  • Or the suspected hack of the U.S. Election

So who should you worry about, criminals or law enforcement?

Both probably.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about” is a nice sound bite but is a fallacy.  Something doesn’t have to be illegal to be damaging.  There is a reason some things are kept private and it’s not for some devious reason or because there is something to hide.

There are some things that people want to keep private.  It doesn’t have to be criminal to be embarrassing.

Both law enforcement and criminals can leverage data to achieve something.  Personal details can be used against you in very creative ways.  We also hold the confidence of other people, and their details can become exposed if the listening switch gets turned on.

Imagine someone confiding something in you all the while your device is alert to your voice.  And it could always be listening.

Do you hear what I hear?   

Smart devices listen.  They’re always listening.  It’s a core part of their function.  They require triggers, but those prompts are easily changed.

Smart speakers won’t pick up every conversation, but a recent hacking demonstration shows they can.  Password breaches are becoming commonplace and hacking into phones can be done with ease.  Millions still don’t adhere to password best practices.  We allow access from millions of apps, some of which create backdoors to your data.

If someone has the will, there is a way to listen to every conversation you have.

Scared yet?  Don’t be.

Shutting off

So the simple solution is to put the earmuffs on the outside world right?

Well that’s up to you.  Often the choice is a lesser of two evils.  Either give up your data to someone else or lose out on the benefits of a connected life.

We’re often required to compromise between either embracing technology or giving up our privacy without even being asked.  However, this isn’t George Orwell’s 1984 and the future shouldn’t only be for those who are willing to relinquish their privacy or identity.

Innovation is driven by situations when you’re stuck with limited or poor choices.  When gas prices went up, the choice was don’t drive, get a tiny car, or pay out.  This brought the birth of the hybrid car.

The choice before us is privacy or connected technology bringing convenience.  And this was recently put to the test with Apple being told by the FBI to allow a backdoor to their phones.  However, law enforcement isn’t the enemy.

On the whole, law enforcement is on our side and the FBI has dedicated resources to protect against cybercrimes.  They are working in a new context.  Just like many of the major tech titans.

Companies are waking up to the demands of the market.  And the market is starting to demand privacy.  The markets are backed by most modern democracies’ dedication to the right of privacy.

While the big companies may not be able to hold off governments and criminal hackers forever, they have been building protections.  And many governments are taking notice of the demands of citizens.

New apps have come on the market to encrypt and protect instant messages and phone calls.  Disappearing information is part of many services now.  Native software is designed to process information without sharing it with someone else.

Legislation and government guidance is being issued to try to balance protection and privacy.

It’s a new world and everyone from law enforcement and governments to businesses and health providers are navigating the new data privacy minefield.  So the onus is on the user.  You.

Vigilance is key

While others are innovating, it’s up to us to be the guardians of our privacy.  We all want something easy and quickly.  That’s ultimately why we have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart watches, and smart homes.  But we need to be smart too.

If we truly want the future, we must understand what we’re letting ourselves in for.  Understand the consequences and make choices that provide the convenience of a personal assistant without compromising privacy.

The future is coming quick, but that doesn’t mean you should dive in as quickly.  Take your time, do some research.  Think about what it is you are wanting.  You don’t want to take control of your house by losing control of your privacy.  Fortunately, a little bit of vigilance can give you both.

Don’t fear the future

Privacy still matters.  As the world of Minority Report, The Jetsons, and Back to the Future (Part II) come at us full tilt, it will matter more.

But as the market creates more demand for a connected life to be in every home, the market will also demand innovations in privacy.  And citizens will demand more protections.

The future may be coming fast, but we can still choose a future where privacy isn’t compromised.

Header Image:

Photo Credit Katie Tegtmeyer —