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From the Internet of Things to the Internet of Surveillance

All of the large technology companies in the world are betting heavily on the Internet of Things and virtual reality platforms. Many are experimenting in-house, as well as buying up and investing in startups all around the world.

Tech companies are seeking to expand their existing lines of business by gathering and processing large amounts of personal information and deanonymising people across platforms, devices, and mediums, then targeting these individuals with advertisements.

But what products and projects are these giants pushing, and how do they intend to monetise them?

Monetising the Internet of Things

In a similar way that gaming consoles are usually sold below their production cost, in the hope of recouping these costs later through the sale of games and accessories, tech firms intend to subsidise their platforms through the monetisation of your data.

Alphabet (formerly Google) shows a glimpse of that future with its new subsidiary Nest Labs. The company produces all sorts of sensors for use in one’s home, from thermostats to smoke detectors and cameras.

The thermostats stay set to manual operation in the first few weeks while they learn the user’s schedule, habits, and preferences. The knowledge the thermostat gains can be used to reduce energy costs, but it also enhances the user profile that Alphabet already has built from platforms such as Android, Google, and Chromecast.

Through the thermostat sensors, it’s easy to imagine what kind of information can significantly enhance Alphabet’s data trove. The sensors can pick up if a user likes it warm or cold, and perhaps use these results to pitch the right vacation for you.

Alphabet’s camera will pick up even more. Nest’s built-in microphone, advertised to efficiently ignore background noise, can listen to what you are talking about and serve you ads based on your discussions. This is not Orwellian fiction, Facebook is already doing it, though it only has access to your microphone when you have the app open, Samsung on the other hand has its TV’s microphones pointed at your couch at all times, and the only way to deactivate it is to pull its plug.

Nest’s smoke alarm may save your life in case of a fire, and the rest of the time it measures carbon monoxide and dioxide levels. Seemingly harmless data, but to take the Internet of Things to a new level, this information can easily be used to estimate how many people are in a room, and if they are, um,'exercising' in the bedroom together.

Opening our homes, devices, and clothes to the Internet is a security and privacy problem

As we learned from the Apple vs FBI saga, the government wants to get access to your data. The NSA has internally boasted about their mission to 'collect it all', which is a policy more akin to that of East Germany’s post-WW2 totalitarian police state than a supposed 'free' nation.

Any data that is made available to the technology providers can and will be made available to intelligence agencies, then federal police agencies focusing on heavy crime, and eventually even the neighbourhood cop. This technology will no doubt occasionally be used for good, but it will also be used to crack down on those that inconvenience governments or, threaten to expose their corruption and control the minorities and those at the fringe of society. Even worse, as these data feeds become more broadly accessible throughout government, it will also become available to criminals.

Having eyes, ears, and other sensors directly in the homes of every citizen might allow governments to selectively gather evidence against those that it identifies as a threat, entirely without the legal protections against arbitrary searches and surveillance that would otherwise apply. The police cannot easily break into your home and install a camera, but they can make use of the camera that you installed yourself.

Can we escape the Internet of Things?

So far it has not been incredibly hard to resist surveillance devices creeping into our homes. Plenty of televisions exist that don’t have 'smart' capabilities, thermostats do not need to be networked, and even if CCTV cameras are necessary, their feed is not available to third parties, nor is it transmitted over the open internet.

Nest, as well as some automobile companies, partner with insurance companies and will offer rebates in exchange for access to your personal data. This system degrades our right to privacy and replaces it with one simple commodity: money.

A 'Lemon Market' is a market in which there is an information asymmetry between producers and consumers. Unless a significant percentage of a market highly values privacy, the market will divide into two segments:

Those who regularly engage in risky behaviour will not opt into insurance products that surveil their driving, partying, and cooking in real time. Those that generally behave safely will accept the privacy intrusion and the rebate.

For those few that act safely but value their privacy, insurance becomes a more and more expensive good. At one point they might feel pressured into opting for surveillance, to save money. If this trend continues, the market for non-surveillance insurance collapses, as it only includes the reckless and a few rich privacy-seeking people.

Privacy is becoming an unobtainable luxury

Another danger is that we are increasingly losing ownership of our surroundings. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it can have vast privacy implications.

With car and home ownership rates dwindling, especially among young people, we lose having a say over what applications are built into our surroundings. An apartment complex might come with CCTV in the lobby, logging of entries and departures, and smart thermostats. While car rental companies will certainly want to monitor their customers’ behaviour to reduce insurance cost. These contracts come with an opt-in surveillance apparatus that we have little to no legal recourse over.

Currently, we still have the opportunity to opt-out. We can still choose not to install invasive equipment in favour of controllers or cameras that are not networked. We can still object when gadgets that compromise our privacy are introduced to our homes, even if we are renting the property. And we are still able to explore and seek out fully audited devices that run open-source code and keep our data accessible only to ourselves. There is no need for any device to stream constant information in order for it to function, and we still have time to steer manufacturers and governments away from such draconian practices.

We are at a crossroad when it comes to our privacy. If we do not show now that we value our home, information, and data, we might verge onto a path where market powers soon leave us without the choice of privacy.

Arthur Baxter, Network Operations Analyst at ExpressVPN