Eavesdropping is the New Normal

EavesdroppingThis week Samsung explained their privacy message regarding their smart TV in a much clearer tone: Samsung is not listening in on your private conversations when watching TV if the speech recognition option is not activated. This statement was absolutely necessary as media reported on Samsungs privacy policy phrase: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of voice recognition.”

Eavesdropping apparently was not the case although their smart TV was and still is perfectly able to do so. Samsung’s smart TV is equipped with speech recognition and can hear, understand and carry out commands given by users. But what seems like an elegant solution to the dozen remote controls on the table opens up yet another potential privacy breach. Samsung made it clear that if users have not switched on the speech recognition option they are not susceptible to eavesdropping.

Samsung’s smart TV is just one example of how former stand-alone uni-directional devices are increasingly connected to the internet and become interactive devices. While we may think that TV’s are still just delivering broadcasted programs they also increasingly capture information about our viewing habits and send those back to the broadcaster or the TV manufacturer. Adding a microphone to the TV is a first step to get a clearer picture of how the audience behaves in front of the TV. It helps to create detailed personal or household profiles. Integrating a camera into the TV is a logical next step. It makes for easy and comfortable Skype video calls in front of your 50” TV screen. To make the TV smart(er), buyers just have to agree with the terms and conditions of the device. Not agreeing will render the device rather dumb. If you do agree you entitle TV manufacturers to handle captured data as they see fit including sharing it with third parties.

But there is more! It’s not just TV’s. There are also smart fridges that inform you when and what to restock. The ChillHub lets you remotely check your supplies. That may come in handy when you are in the supermarket and wonder if you need to stock up on beer. That information is worth something and given the Samsung example it should not surprise anyone if the manufacturer of the Chillhub, FirstBuild, owned by General Electric, is aiming for additional revenues by sharing this information to interested third parties, say supermarkets. And of course no one should be surprised that just after you noticed that you are low on beer, the supermarket you just entered makes you a special beer deal. Not bad.

Or take the NEST thermostat, a smart thermostat that knows what temperature you like and knows when you go to sleep and get up or are absent during the day. The NEST packs five sensors (temperature, humidity, ambient light, far and near field activity) that together capture environmental, household and/or personal information to help you save money on your heating bill without you having to go through the trouble of manually turning the central heating system up or down. The NEST can only be used through a NEST account that downloads all the information. In return you get your monthly energy report emailed to you. But what happens with the information afterwards? NEST is also part of Google. In 2012 Google announced it would integrate information across all of its free services (mail, search, video, agenda, + etc) effectively making users of these services sitting ducks for advertisers. The Nest data nicely complements its existing data pile. And even though Nest’s privacy statement says they care about your privacy, Facebook taught us that it is not the privacy statements that counts but terms and conditions; and these can change overnight.

Home devices increasingly are connected to the Internet. It makes for smarter households, generates lower energy bills, optimizes household supplies and create simple but high touch communication. It also generates a new digital universe of household information that could bring about new consumer services and products. For business-to-consumer organizations and advertisers this is highly valuable data that enables them to come up with attractive personalized offers at the right time and place.

It is not just businesses, however, that are welcoming more household data. The Dutch government wants to grant additional power to national security agencies MIVD and AIVD to carry out eavesdropping practices on metadata and content without having a direct suspicion (justified reasons?). The data trail of smart homes will be welcomed by these agencies as it makes for a bigger data bounty. In this week’s parliamentary debate on allowing these agencies large scale surveillance it became clear that for most political parties privacy should always give way to perceived security. Hence eavesdropping has become the new normal.

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About Marcel Warmerdam