There was a section so common in big name CES tech presentations that it was almost comical. After announcing some widget or the other, a cheerful CEO would stand on stage and talk about how smart everything would soon become thanks to the SmartAppliance Framework or some such nonsense. The television can talk to the fridge which in turn can tell the washer to turn on. You can connect your watch to your coffee machine and send music from your electric lawnmower to a speaker in your pool. It took years for these systems to come to fruition but with the advent of always-on low-energy processors and new wireless standards, your things can now be constantly in touch with each other. What does that mean? It means your TV can see you naked, your Xbox can hear your conversations, and your Dropcam can spy on your neighbors.
We live in an era of endless monitoring. We are watched from birth to death and, while most of us in the U.S. will never bump up against it, there is an apparatus in place that could feasibly create a detailed dossier on us in seconds. We are rightly concerned with NSA spying but what happens when one agency in one case gets a warrant to tap our routers. What happens when a zealous attorney general asks for the last 24 hours of recorded video in your nanny-cam or your heart rate during a particular day? All of that is available, it’s potentially admissible, and the vast majority of US companies would rather hand over the footage than protect your privacy.
Furthermore, much of the data these IoT devices collect is unaccounted for yet required for device operation. One TechDirt reader noted that his LG “smart” TV turned dumb when he refused to allow it to listen to him.
I do not trust connected devices but I also don’t fear them. Many companies will do the right thing when called out – Samsung backed out of an Orwellian clause in their smart TVs – but the danger of security flaws grows with a system’s complexity. What happens when someone is able to activate my PS4’s camera remotely? What happens when my Wii U starts listening to my kids? What happens when someone is able to hack more complex, higher-quality IP cameras just like they did the cheaper ones? I’m more afraid of error than outright malice.
Maybe it’s time for our devices to be dumber. Until there is an open security standard for health data, for example, maybe it’s not the best idea to strap a device to your child overnight. Until Belkin or Samsung or Withings can show that it can’t be hacked through published source code and an independent audit, maybe I shouldn’t buy their products. I know I won’t follow my own advice and I know I’ll be burned. That’s why CE manufacturers aren’t worried about this. It’s not a problem until it is. Then it’s a huge problem.
I’m fine with smart devices. But I know that as each one of these devices is connected to my Wi-Fi network or my cellphone I add an attack vector to a very private place – my home and my body. By all means lets run headlong into the future but let’s open things up so the future is more Clarke than Orwell.