Over the past decade we have seen the gradual erosion of online privacy. Recent revelations of a world-wide monitoring system being carried out by the NSA have confirmed this fact (Guardian, 2013). The average internet-user generates a great deal of unsecured personal data. Indeed, organisations such as the NSA are capable of building rather sophisticated profiles of almost all of us. From our personal e-mails to our favourite TV shows and books, all data provided by internet-users can be obtained by organisations of significant means. This is not limited to government agencies, internet giants such as google and Facebook collect data on hundreds of millions of users world-wide. Whenever data is stored on a server there is the potential for this data to be hacked for nefarious purposes. In a world where internet use is playing an increasingly significant role in all of our lives this is matter of great concern. While a great deal of our personal information is already at risk, the proliferation of smart-home technology represents a major expansion of this information and potentially the greatest threat to personal privacy of our age.
In order to fully appreciate this threat you must first understand the type of data which smart-home technology is capable of generating. Many aspects of domestic life are likely to be impacted by smart-home technology. Home appliances which we take for granted, will be transformed into sophisticated Wi-Fi enabled devices capable of transferring information. For example, your fridge may eventually be capable monitoring the type of food you eat and automatically ordering groceries based on these preferences (Samsung, 2014). It has been suggested that Smart homes may be capable of playing the role of medical physician and carrying out basic health tests on a daily basis (Marsh, 2001). This would involve the transmission of highly private information to the service provider’s servers. Smart thermostats are capable of analysing user’s energy consumption patterns and turning the heat on and off depending on previous user behaviour (Nest, 2014). It may be argued that these are relatively innocent pieces of information and no one in their right mind should care if their taste in food can be hacked. However, this is a misleading argument. While such pieces of data may individually seem trivial, when taken together with other information already being provided via the internet they provide a highly descriptive profile of an individual. Smart home technology has the potential to substantially widen the pool of information available about us all.
Beyond profiling, abuse of the data generated by smart homes is capable of producing far more sinister outcomes. Smart security systems, such as Xfinity provided by Comcast, will offer users home surveillance and door-locking capabilities via smartphone. Consider the risks of such data being acquired by third parties. The private domain would be utterly compromised, with the most intimate aspects of a person’s life exposed. This also represents a major security risk, any hacker capable of accessing this information would not only have a window into your personal life but also the means to enter your home at will. While it would be unfair to suggest that Comcast will not do their utmost to protect this data, information of this nature would be highly appealing to hackers world-wide and some government agencies. When such groups set their sights on a piece of information it can no longer be considered secure.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” (Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google), such sentiments are commonly espoused by organisations which collect our data. This statement, which bears an eerie resemblance to a press release from the ministry of love, can easily be exposed to be fallacious by applying the most basic levels of scrutiny. There are a great number of behaviours which are not illegal that a person may not wish exposed to the public domain. The onus should not to be on citizens to justify their preference for privacy but rather it ought to lie on the corporations who threaten this fundamental right.
- Eric Schmidt quoted by Newman, B (2014), My Favourite privacy quotes, Available at http://librarianbyday.net/2010/05/05/my-favorite-privacy-quotes-a-top-ten-countdown/ (Accessed 9 March 2014)
- Jarvis,J (2013), The Guardian, Available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/the-nsa-files (Accessed 8 March 2014)
- Samsung (2014). Samsung. Available at http://www.samsung.com/us/topic/apps-on-your-fridge ( Accessed 8 March 2014)
- Marsh, J (2001). Rochester. Available at http://www.rochester.edu/pr/Review/V64N3/feature2.html (Accessed 7 March 2014)
- Nest Lab (2014). Available at https://nest.com/thermostat/life-with-nest-thermostat/
(Accessed 9 March 2014)
- Newman, B (2014) My Favourite privacy quotes, Available at http://librarianbyday.net/2010/05/05/my-favorite-privacy-quotes-a-top-ten-countdown/ (Accessed 9 March 2014)