“Smart” Gadgets a Threat to Privacy

Used to be that you had to be rich to afford servants. And what a perk they were! They would perform all types of services for you which gave you more leisure time and less toil. However, servants came with a price beyond their paychecks and livery. With servants around all the time, you could never be really sure of your privacy. You had to watch what you said and where you said it. You also had to be careful of your state of dress, actions and personal hygiene. If you failed to be discrete, you might get nasty surprises in the form of ridicule and embarrassment. If you were a military man or government official, you could even face such consequences as loss of secret information and official censure.

For most of us, this was not a problem that we had to consider. The vast majority of us didn’t have or even want full-time servants in our house. We were proud of our self-reliance and our strong work ethic. However, as time passed and technology increased, a new and insidious group of servants came into our lives: labor-saving machines and devices. We, of course, immediately embraced and lauded them. Who wouldn’t? More and more they performed those tasks and services that only human and animal servants were able to carry out in the past. And since they were mere mechanisms, we didn’t have to worry about eavesdropping and the other privacy issues posed by servants.

All that is changing very rapidly, and most of us are only vaguely aware of the fact. The electronics revolution and the rise of “smart machines” have brought the privacy problem back to us in spades! The new servants in our homes listen to us, sometime watch us, and often even record what they see and hear. They also lack all ethics and can be suborned by anyone with the technical skills to hack into them.

One of the most capable of these smart machines is our beloved laptop computers. Almost all of them are equipped with cameras and microphones. If you are careless with them, or if someone hacks into them and gains remote control, they can be made to record and/or transmit any sounds and images within their range. How many of us just use these devices anywhere and leave them running when we are done with them? I confess that I am guilty of this.

The same thing goes for our smart phones. They are very much like small laptops in their capabilities, only they are much more portable and have a built-in telephone as well. Do you keep your smart phone by your bed at night? Do you have it with you in the bathroom in case someone calls while you are in the shower? I bet a lot of us do.

And what about devices and applications that you simply speak to; no keyboard or typing necessary! I bet your phone has one of these services, not to mention many others devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. These devices listen constantly and respond to names or phrases. But, like everything else, they are imperfect. They sometimes mistake one word for another or otherwise activate themselves. Have you ever been watching television when suddenly your smartphone comes on? I had this happen recently. Not only did my iPhone tell me it was listening, but it dialed one of my friends with no prompting by me! And these devices often record what they hear.

These are some of the “older” examples of what is becoming a flood of new smart devices and applications. Internet of Things devices, smart TVs and game consoles not only often have cameras and microphones, lots of them are incredibly easy to hack into. They are usually built with little security, primitive operating systems and easily compromised interfaces. There are even privacy dangers associated with smart refrigerators, light bulbs and ovens just to mention a few.

The upshot of all of this is that people need to become aware of these new dangers and take reasonable steps to protect themselves. You should learn what your shiny new toys are capable of when you introduce them into your lives. Plus, I’ll go one step further. In my opinion, smart devices should be required to undergo security testing before being thrown into the market. After all, most of the devices in our homes such as water heaters, furnaces and electrical systems have been regulated and forced to meet certain safety standards for decades. Why shouldn’t there be similar regulated privacy standards for the new group of machines that reside in our houses with us?

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