Is your refrigerator an NSA spy? What about your thermostat? Or your toaster? Or fitness tracker?
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said n 2016 during Senate testimony that the federal government has every intention of using the “internet of things” to expand its surveillance capabilities.
That’s a broad category which can include any of the items I listed above, plus a lot more. The internet of things is “the expanding network of connected devices throughout our homes, bodies, streets and communities,” so basically think of anything with an internet connection. (Yes, some kitchen appliances have internet now.)
This may sound like it would provide pretty boring information that you wouldn’t mind the government knowing. After all, who cares what the thermostat is set to or if you took the stairs instead of the elevator today?
In reality, much like the “boring” information of communications metadata (which is way more revealing than most realize), there’s a lot the feds can learn about us from these mundane details, as Clapper’s testimony indicated:
“In the future, intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” Clapper said.
Clapper did not specifically name any intelligence agency as involved in household-device surveillance. But security experts examining the internet of things take as a given that the US and other surveillance services will intercept the signals the newly networked devices emit, much as they do with those from cellphones. […]
Connected household devices are a potential treasure trove to intelligence agencies seeking unobtrusive ways to listen and watch a target…
Some internet of things items are more concerning in this regard than others, because they record much more than metadata. For instance, this time last year we found out that Samsung’s voice-activated TV was always listening for potential voice commands, meaning it could potentially function as a perpetual eavesdropping device for surveillance purposes.
While Samsung took a bunch of heat, a wide array of devices now act as all-seeing or all-listening devices, including other television models, Xbox Kinect, Amazon Echo and GM’s OnStar program that tracks car owners’ driving patterns. Even a new Barbie has the ability to spy on you – it listens to Barbie owners to respond but also sends what it hears back to the mothership at Mattel.
Then there are the rampant security issues with the internet of things that allow hackers – whether they are criminal, government or something in between – to access loads of data without any court order, like the creeps who were eavesdropping on baby monitors of new parents. Just a few weeks ago, a security researcher found that Google’s Nest thermostats were leaking users’ zipcodes over the internet. There’s even an entire search engine for the internet of things called Shodan that allows users to easily search for unsecured webcams that are broadcasting from inside people’s houses without their knowledge.
While people voluntarily use all these devices, the chances are close to zero that they fully understand that a lot of their data is being sent back to various companies to be stored on servers that can either be accessed by governments or hackers.
Or, as this tweet more succinctly said of “smart” appliances:
This post was originally published on February 26, 2016. We’re reviving it in our archive because it’s still one of our most popular reads.