Privacy as a Privilege: The Flip Side of Tech Advances

IoT makes possible a whole range of government surveillance and monitoring practices. Governments can easily use our smart homes, smart cars, and other technologies to spy on us. What does all of this mean for the average citizen?

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Privacy-as-a-privilege-The-flip-side-of-technological-advancement
Illustration: © IoT For All

Do you ever get this weird feeling that someone is watching you? Well, you could be right. From smart cars and smart homes, every minute detail of our lives is up for grabs through the windows technology provides. While all these “smart” technologies are intended to make our lives easier, they can also be used to snoop on our private lives.

And don’t forget that government surveillance has become more streamlined with the advancement of our technological abilities. Governments can easily use our smart homes, smart cars, and other technologies to surveil us. What does that mean for the average citizen?

Well, for starters, it means that it’s now easier for governments to keep tabs on you in ways you are not aware of and probably not comfortable with. And no, you don’t have to be a person of interest in a terrorism investigation for governments to slink into your phone conversations or computers. Anybody can be a victim of this gross violation of the fundamental right to online/internet privacy. New forms of technology bring huge opportunities, but they also make it possible for governments (and any other well-funded adversaries) to spy on you.

Ways You Might Be Spied on Through IoT Devices

Every piece of technology is becoming smarter and smarter every day. Normal household appliances such as refrigerators, dishwashers and TVs are now connected through the Internet of Things (IoT). Internet service providers (ISPs) can easily spy on us with the connected devices we use in our homes even when the connected device is set up to protect user privacy. The threat of IoT devices has always been present. However, concerns were generally directed at external threats, such as cybercriminals coaxing IoT devices to join in a DDoS attack or people spying on our baby monitors, not the internet service providers (ISPs), device manufacturers or government.

People began raising concerns over who else could be using our data for profit when the Obama-era laws that were meant to give users more power over the information they shared with ISPs, as well as keep the service providers from using personal data to third-parties, were repealed by the US legislature in March 2017.

A number of IoT manufacturers and ISPs show little regard for the privacy of the consumer. And since there are no laws to stop them. So, how much of your privacy are you willing to sacrifice for a smart home?

The Reality of Big Brother Surveillance

Governments are always spying on citizens, or “monitoring” them some might say. This happens in most developed countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and other major democracies. The National Security Agency (NSA) in the US legally collects people’s private data. Some of the data collected by the NSA include email messages, cell phone log data within and outside the country as well as internet traffic passing through the undersea fiber optic cables. In some cases, governments will work together to collect private data in their respective countries.

In the UK, the administration works in tandem with private telecom companies to intercept internet traffic and collect private data through the Tempora program. There are many surveillance programs in the UK, the Tempora program is just the one we know about. Mass surveillance on such a level is not only unlawful but also sweeps aside the citizens’ free expression and right to privacy, which should never be allowed to happen. Amnesty International (UK) is suing the country’s intelligence services for unlawfully accessing citizens’ private communications.

Big Data and Machine Learning

Vast amounts of data collected by tech companies such as Google and Facebook have led to the accumulation of massive repositories of information about customer habits. Most of the data is about consumers and their online activity. Advancements in machine learning allows companies to use this data to find patterns in our online lives and use these patterns to make predictions. Based on these predictions, companies are able to make assumptions about our habits to sell to us more efficiently.

The problem is that user data analysis with machine learning means that conclusions might be drawn against you. Case in point, according to an article by the New York Times, businesses are already using customer data to make predictions about who’s more likely to make payments on time and who’s not. A Canadian-based retailer found that customers who purchased premium birdseed were more likely to make timely payments while those who purchased skull-shaped auto accessories were highly likely to miss payments.  

What’s even more shocking is that all the customers who fall in the latter category had their application for store credit rejected. That is despite the fact that many of them were first-time applicants who had not missed any payments before, which doesn’t seem fair at all. As you can see, the use of machine learning user data analysis will often lead to unfair conclusions being drawn against a customer. This wouldn’t happen if service providers didn’t share our personal data with online retailers. 

Why Your Privacy Is Worth Defending

Your online activity often exposes sensitive information about you to the unwanted attention of many prying eyes on the web. Every time you connect your computer or smartphone to the internet, your personal data is collected with or without your permission. This is when privacy violations occur. Keep in mind that internet privacy violation isn’t only committed by hackers, snoopers and other cybercriminals. Your government, as we learned from Edward Snowden’s exposé on how the CIA and British intelligence agencies were working in cahoots to spy on people, could be the culprit.

Your data reveals a lot about you. Personal online data reveals practically everything there is to know about you. This information should be private, meaning that you shouldn’t share it with third-parties. Privacy equals security for a lot of internet users out there. If this personal data were to be exposed to the prying eyes on the world wide web, most of us would feel vulnerable and unsafe.

ISPs, social media sites, and data companies such as Google will say your personal data is safe, but that is often not the case. The data you share is never private, so it’s safe to just hold on to our personal data for security reasons.

Written by Jack Warner, General Manager at TechWarn Media.