In the privacy of your own home,
That smart TV, your connected thermostat, even your washing machine—they’re all tracking your daily habits. Why you need to know who’s watching.
Last spring, as 41,000 runners made their way through the streets of Dublin in the city’s Women’s Mini Marathon, an unassuming redheaded man by the name of Candid Wueest stood on the sidelines with a scanner. He had built it in a couple of hours with $75 worth of parts, and he was using it to surreptitiously pick up data from activity trackers worn on the runners’ wrists. During the race, Wueest managed to collect personal info from 563 racers, including their names, addresses, and passwords, as well as the unique IDs of the devices they were carrying.
Fortunately, Wueest is not a data criminal. He’s one of the good guys—a security researcher at Symantec, the company behind Norton antivirus software. His experiment was done to expose some of the risks associated with the growing constellation of “smart” devices known collectively as the Internet of Things.
Many of those devices are versions of familiar, even friendly, consumer products: thermostats, refrigerators, light switches, televisions, and door locks. But the new versions connect to the Internet and can be controlled through an app on a phone, tablet, or computer. The smart devices communicate with each other, too, and they offer an appealing level of convenience. Your car can tell your home’s thermostat to turn on the air conditioning as you’re driving home. Your security camera can record a video clip if the smoke alarm goes off. And you can use your activity tracker to control lights in your house.
But that convenience comes with a trade-off: The devices can also send a steady flood of personal data to corporate servers, where it’s saved and shared, and can be used in ways you can’t control. Websites and smartphone apps have been following our activities for a long time, tracking where we go; what we read, watch, and buy; what we write in our e-mails; and who we follow on Facebook and Twitter. But now connected devices gather data from some of the most private spaces of our lives—the bedside table, the kitchen counter, the baby’s nursery.
Without proper safeguards, all of the data that different devices and sites have collected about you can be combined, then exploited by marketers or stolen by hackers. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who released a report on automotive privacy this winter, says the Internet of Things deserves more scrutiny. (Connected cars can share a large amount of personal data.) “Whether it is our cars, our thermostats or our household appliances, if these personal devices are connected to the Internet, they are a potential privacy threat,” he says. “Consumers’ most sensitive information is collected and turned into dossiers that are pure gold in the hands of marketers and pitchmen. We need strong, legally enforceable rules … to ensure personal information is protected.”