Privacy Is In Retreat

Why are consumers giving up so much personal information?


It was always a given that when you were online, you’re in public. The deceptive piece is that your online activities can appear very distant from your physical location. You might be shopping from the comfort and seeming privacy of your living room, or texting on your smart phone before you get out of bed.

This created a lot of buzz initially, but over the past year or so the level of paranoia about being watched seems to have faded. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to cover his laptop camera and microphone with tape warranted a story in the New York Times in 2016. And the Daily Beast reported in 2015 that Samsung TVs may be listening to you.

Fast forward to the present and much has changed. People appear to have let their guard down about having listening devices in their home. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said during an earning release last October that Amazon had sold more than 20 million Alexa devices. And Strategy Analytics reported that in Q3 of last year, Amazon shipped 5 million smart speakers, accounting for roughly 67% of the total number. Google came in at 25% based upon its Google Home device, with 1.9 million smart speakers.

That’s a lot of listening devices. How many of the people who bought Alexa or Google Home devices also cover their home computer cameras or programmed their televisions to not spy on them isn’t known. But this is only a small piece of the story. Crowdsourced real-time traffic apps can tell where you are, how often you go there, at what time, how fast and aggressively you drive, and whether you’re able to get into a carpool lane or not. They know where you live, where you work, and when you’re typically on the road. From there it’s easy to determine your income bracket by your address, whether you rent or own your house, what you paid for your home (you can easily find that out on Zillow). And all of these systems track IP addresses and previous sites visited, which is why you get ads popping up on your screen related to anything you’ve been shopping for.

This isn’t just a case of paranoia from the fringe. Strava, which tracks GPS systems, published a global heat map showing where people are using connected fitness devices like a Fitbit. The map created panic in the U.S. DoD because it gave the location of military personnel around the globe, some in secret locations. Fitbits can determine when you’re working and when you’re relaxed, or engaged in private “heart-rate-raising” activities.

The list goes on. Robotic vacuums transmit a concise map of your home. Smart thermostats and meters can tell when you’re home and using energy. And smart appliances will relay their activity to your phone and to the company, which tracks such information supposedly for customer service reasons.

Couple that with all of your credit information, which Equifax was supposed to protect, and the number of hacks across e-mail sites such as Yahoo!, retail outlets such as Target and Home Depot, and credit card and hotel loyalty program breaches, and it’s not hard to create a frightening picture about the lack of privacy in an increasingly electronic world.

Not everyone is comfortable with this state of affairs, of course. The European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation addresses the full data lifecycle of devices, as well as the potential for huge fines in case of hacks. (There is a good summary here.) But realistically, this is an after-the-fact remedy. Companies often don’t know their devices are vulnerable until they’ve been hacked, and sometimes they can’t predict how they will be hacked in the future based upon today’s state-of-the-art technology.

While much more can be done to secure devices against hacking, it’s up to consumers to understand the risks of using devices-which frequently are buried in the fine print of extremely long and seriously obfuscated user licenses. But if they really understood the risks to privacy, would it alter their behavior? So far, that question has rarely been asked, and it has never been answered. But as the IoT and ubiquitous connectivity continue to increase, we’re about to find out.

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