Smart Homes

July 20, 2018 at 11:39 am | Posted in Economoney, Security, Software, Technology | Leave a comment
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Modern “Smart” technology is a wonderful thing. Smart phones do vastly more than just make telephone calls. They give you information power unheard of until recently. That technology has also moved forward into TV’s, household appliances, and “personal assistants.”

However, the technology has also picked up bad habits. Many web sites exchanged free applications for your usage data and demographics for targeted marketing. This is the operating principle of Facebook, for example. Google picked this up then it migrated onto smart phones in a big way. Some applications use your paid monthly data to feed you ads and collect your information. It’s hard to find applications that don’t track you now. Even simple things like flashlights want to track your browsing history, calling history, and more. Pay attention to those permissions.

Ah, not a big deal you say – I give up a little privacy in exchange for convenience. Yet most people do not understand how much information is being collected about them,  from how many devices, and how it skews their world-view. Companies have been working to aggregate the data from multiple sources too. Now people are paying for “personal assistants” that essentially bug your home. Just who is this smart for?

In a recent TED talk, journalists Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu describe an experiment they ran. They speak of the ways supposed convenience is used to collect your personal habits and send it to corporations. That data is then used to manipulate you into buying more and is sold to unknown third parties. Your personal life has become a product without you knowing.

Much as companies may plead that no personally identifiable information is being saved, how hard is it to ID you if they also know who bought their products? Just one piece of data like your IP address can connect all the dots. You leave your IP address on every website you visit, sometimes with your contact info, photo, and so forth. If you use a router, your devices use the same IP.

Keep in mind this is being done without your informed consent and your life is being shared with companies you’ve never heard of, often off-shore. This is unregulated territory. Your email address has more protection than your sleep and sex habits.

Smart power meters are a simpler example. Power consumption itself doesn’t give a lot of information about you. But smart meters track patterns of consumption throughout the day. This maps your personal routines in detail. My hydro provider lets me look at my usage graphs and can make surprisingly informed suggestions to save money. But I have less concern about them than I do multinationals with little to no regulatory oversight.

Zeynep Tufekci talked at TED about artificial intelligence and the hazards of unconstrained tracking. For example, even if you don’t log in, YouTube will offer you “suggested” videos. Web sites feed us what they think will keep us there longer. This drifts to extremes, leading into dark corners and a very distorted view of the world. I’ve been surprised by the weirdness YouTube suggests if I watch a few clips, for example. News sites do the same thing in much less obvious ways.

The talk mentions how Facebook’s testing revealed small changes in posts changed the voting behaviour of hundreds of thousands of users. In the US election, this was more than the difference between the parties. And yet the vast majority of users don’t realize they’re being manipulated this way. Confirmation bias is unconscious.

Minimizing our use of biased platforms can help. Balanced news sources, non-tracking search engines, browser plug-ins that reduce tracking, and similar tools can help us get a more neutral view. But only if we’re informed and discriminating.

The EU has been more proactive about clamping down on some of this behaviour. But the Internet is still largely an open highway. That’s a good thing but remember the hazards of the open road.
David

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