iot devices

Does the Internet of Things Mean the End of Privacy?9 min read

We live in an age where we are surrounded by the ‘Internet of Things’, or the ‘IoT’ at almost all points throughout an ordinary day. Knowing that we have objects capable of recording our movements and actions, all linked to an interconnected global network – should we worry about our privacy?

In January 2017, a strange witness was ordered to testify in a double murder case in New Hampshire, USA. Two women had been killed in a home in the town of Farmingdon, and the court wanted to rely on crucial evidence from someone present in around 50 million homes throughout the country: Alexa.

A couple of years earlier, Alexa had been called again to help solve a suspected murder case in Arkansas, and in the suburbs of Connecticut a man is awaiting another murder trial after evidence obtained from a Fitbit placed him under suspicion.

It’s clear then, that the Internet of Things can act as recording devices in even the most intimate of settings. It’s pretty common for people to question whether their devices are listening to them.

Suspiciously accurate ad targeting, like cheap flights to New York following a conversation about a trip to New York, or creepy stories like baby monitor cameras being hacked remotely, might suggest we have entered a very real Big Brother age – but do IoTs really mean the end of privacy?

What are IoTs?

the iot around earth

The Internet of Things is, put simply, a network of everyday objects that have become connected to the internet. Be that a fridge, a watch, a doorbell, a car, a billboard, a speaker, the list, these days, is practically endless.

They have come about due to advances in AI in tandem with many other technologies, and the result? The world has never been so interconnected.

Virtually every space occupied by humans is accompanied by a device capable of recording, storing and analyzing data, that is connected to a worldwide network.

They’ve brought about a huge number of practical, intelligent solutions to everything from everyday inconveniences, to massively significant social and environmental issues.

In the health industry, Fitbits and pacemakers allow close monitoring and analysis of a person’s vital signs so that they can be cared for more effectively.

Huge deployments of IoT devices in order to create ‘Smart Cities’ that run more efficiently, monitoring environmental aspects and improving infrastructure, could lead to huge improvements in quality of life for millions.

A person with a smart fridge can run family life more smoothly and save themselves time in a busy schedule.

Anyone with a video doorbell can feel more secure in their home, even when they’re out.

woman wearing internet enabled watch

With these advances, opportunities for marketers spring up all over the place. In particular, the world of SEO could change almost beyond recognition, as the way we interact with the internet, and therefore the way we interact with search engines, changes.

We no longer necessarily need to type a search term on a keyboard or a screen. Now, we can order things simply through dictation. We can search for services just by opening our mouths and talking.

The point of the IoT is to give consumers greater control over their own lives. They are designed to make everything more interconnected and to make everything run more efficiently.

There are currently around 26.66 billion objects that are capable of internet connectivity. By 2025, it’s estimated that 75.44 billion devices will make up the Internet of Things.

It’s fair to say that the globe is becoming increasingly saturated in the internet, and you have to wonder if Tim Berners-Lee saw this all coming when he was writing the WorldWideWeb back in the early 90s.

This increased interconnectivity will bring on huge advancements in human development – it already has. But there are serious concerns when it comes to the IoT that we need to take into serious consideration.

What does the IoT Mean for Privacy?

half closed laptop

Namely, these concerns are based around our last example of an IoT device: the video doorbell. The purpose of these doorbells are to provide the user and homeowner with a sense of security. However, security and privacy are exactly what many feel are completely incompatible concepts with the development of the IoT.

The fact that so many devices have the capability of connecting to other, distant devices justifiably worries many people. You yourself may have experienced the strange phenomenon of having a conversation with a person about a need for a product, only to see it appear in a Facebook feed a day later.

Was your phone listening? A smart speaker? Something else?

We’ve already seen that Amazon speakers have been seized as potential sources of evidence in court, which suggests they may be recording all the time. Well, it must be at least listening to what you say.

If you think it’s only listening after the ‘wake word’ – Alexa – how can Alexa not be listening out for ‘Alexa’? But actually, there is more substantial evidence for the fact that Alexa is always recording than this.

Amazon hires employees to listen to you.

Alexa records and uploads snippets of your conversation to its cloud, to be used for advancing voice recognition technology. It’s not made clear to users, but you can turn this setting off in your Alexa app. The fact that this happens is just the first step down a disturbing corridor of privacy invasions.

When people have requested their Amazon data from the company, they have been sent (by mistake) audio files from another users Amazon Echo. Alexa isn’t just listening. She is recording and saving.

amazon alexa iot

The worries don’t end with speakers picking up your conversations. Cameras with internet connectivity are also at risk of exposing a user’s private life. For example, as we mentioned earlier, a story came out around a year ago concerning a baby monitor (that had a camera accessible from an app) being hacked to spy on a breastfeeding mother.

There have been incidents cited of billboards secretly filming those who stop to read them, so that certain demographics can be more accurately targeted with advertising.

We are an image hungry species, and cameras are becoming integrated in an increasing number of fixtures in the home that are often open to hacking.

Stories like this baby monitor hack pressure manufacturers to place more of a priority on keeping these cameras secure. However, the sheer numbers of cameras being placed into all facets of life leave us more and more open to an invasion of our privacy.

Essentially, with so many interconnected devices collecting a huge amount of data pretty much constantly, there has to be responsibility in terms of what happens to this data.

We discussed earlier how the IoT has helped bring about advancements in the health industry. In fact, according to the networking company Aruba, by 2030 healthcare will be completely digitised. A seemingly positive development with potentially detrimental consequences.

doctor using iot device

Health data is the most highly sought after by cybercriminals, and more and more of this data is going to uploaded onto a huge matrix thanks to the introduction of the IoT.

In fact, 89% of health organisations that have adopted IoT technology have been subject to a data breach, including the notorious SingHealth cyber-attack, where the personal information of 1.5 million patients was accessed.

With only more devices starting to collect data on our health, the chances of breaches in this industry only increase.

The data that is collected by businesses that produce IoT integrated devices must be stored somewhere. The fact that breaches in privacy are detrimental to these businesses provides them with a huge incentive to keep this data out of the hands of those that might have malicious intentions. But this is kind of irrelevant.

It’s not like – provided you don’t move to a Himalayan mountain cave – you will be able to go ‘offline’. The earth is becoming a place that is now connected in a way that is virtually inconceivable. Where anyone, anywhere, provided they have the expertise or the access, will be able to harvest data on anyone who is exposed to the IoT.

Everything about you is being uploaded to a network that is by its very nature open and interactive. The internet is, by definition, an open and connected network. Where openness and connectivity thrive, privacy will be compromised.

Does the Internet of Things mean the end of privacy? Yes. And whilst it may never impact you noticeably and you may never feel as if you are being influenced by data, you probably will be.

bots protest

Whoever unlocks the ability to track, analyse and apply this unprecedented amount of data will largely remain unseen. There now lies a huge responsibility on governments and big corporations to work to keep the data that is being harvested from the IoT as private as possible.

This all sounds pretty bad for the companies that manufacture products that make up the IoT. After all, as this information becomes more and more like common knowledge, given a huge helping hand by the privacy scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, surely sales will suffer.

But how exactly will manufacturers go about inspiring trust, building a world in which users can feel safe and happy to keep buying from them?

Hope for Privacy?

One of the most worrying aspects of the lack of privacy we see today comes with the fact that users just don’t know how much information they are giving away about themselves.

Most people don’t read privacy policies, and the option to buy items on the market that don’t have tracking, recording and internet connectivity capabilities are becoming more and more slim.

However, businesses now have a moral requisite to allow users more control over their data. And whilst they have no moral incentive to do so, thanks to new laws around the handling of private data collected from consumers, we may find ourselves back in control of what we share.

Not only this, but if a user was to fall victim of a privacy breach, they will be in a far more empowered position when it comes to holding a party accountable. Further still, businesses are just as concerned about user worries. It’s predicted that by 2021, IoT security spending will have gone up to $3.1 billion.

For now, though, the future seems uncertain when it comes to how effective this will all be. The fact is, data breaches happen all the time, and we may just have to submit ourselves to a world that is always switched on, and where you are being watched all of the time.