Are Smart Appliances Spying on You?

Posted: March 22, 2012 in People
CIA Director David Petraeus admits the government could, and likely would, spy on citizens through their appliances, as “smart home” devices become a market reality.

While discussing an “Internet of things,” Petraeus said household devices with online connectivity will change the notion of secrecy, indicating the rise of these devices will create a fresh wave of privacy concern.

Devices collecting data from a home can potentially watch anything inside it, gathering information that may be stored in the parent company’s server. Such data may be subject to review by regulators, or probes by agencies like the CIA if the user is a person of interest, sparing law enforcement the step of bugging the home, Petraeus said.

“Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing,” Petraeus said, according to Wired. “The latter now going to cloud computing, in many areas greater and greater supercomputing, and, ultimately, heading to quantum computing.”

Federal laws keep the CIA from spying on just anyone without a warrant or proper judicial procedure. But multiple cases of agencies tracking GPS data without a warrant nudge the boundaries of Fourth Amendment privacy protections, and laws that predate today’s technology could be vaguely interpreted when applied to data residing in a cloud.

Following the theory that home devices would be controlled by a smartphone, the more connected the devices are raises the likelihood that stored information could be prone to search by law enforcement.

Potential pitfalls grow increasingly clear as many tech companies research and experiment with smart home devices. Google is working on getting smartphones to work like remotes for home electronics, using near-field communications, or NFC, technology so devices communicate directly with one another as part of the “Internet of things.”

Other companies support these efforts with their own inventions, like a chip from ARM employs a single grid that helps prolong power for devices across the home, intending to limit overall energy use.

But these next-generation inventions are fraught with potential complications. In California, utility providers hooked up “smart meters” to give hourly reports on home electricity use back to the company to monitor use. But thousands of complaints rolled in, despite energy-saving benefits. The utility company offered customers options to trade the device in for older models, as many expressed concern about the long-term health effects from radio frequencies, though regulators and health experts said risk was minimal.

In this case, consumers uncomfortable with the technology had the chance to get rid of it. As such products become available, consumers interested in trying them out may want to thoroughly understand how the device operates in order to comprehend what types of risks it could pose.

On the other hand, companies producing the device will need to clearly explain how something works and what kind of vulnerabilities it may have, as well as what legal protections surround relevant data.

The smart home concept isn’t far from becoming a reality, a charge no doubt illuminating the imaginations of inventors and engineers looking to take advantage of modern technology for everyday, efficient purposes. But these developments are sure to run into complications with the law and consumer advocates, especially if a home that’s more connected is a home more likely to be monitored

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