In July the Washington Post reported that hackers had attempted to acquire data from a North American casino by using an Internet-connected fish tank, according to cybersecurity firm Darktrace. The fish tank had sensors connected to a PC that regulated the temperature, food and cleanliness of the tank.
“Somebody got into the fish tank and used it to move around into other areas (of the network) and sent out data,” said Justin Fier, Darktrace’s director of cyber intelligence. The report said 10 GB of data were sent out to a device in Finland.
“By gazing into this fish tank, we can see the problem with “internet of things” devices: We don’t really control them,” writes author Joshua Fairfield in Newsweek. “And it’s not always clear who does—though often software designers and advertisers are involved.”
A Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University, Fairfield is the author of the new book “Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom.” In questioning the “Internet of Things,” he refers to the robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba which creates maps of its users’ homes, to more efficiently navigate through them while cleaning. Reuters and Gizmodo reported recently, Roomba’s manufacturer, iRobot, may plan to share those maps of the layouts of people’s private homes with its commercial partners.
Like the Roomba, other smart devices can be programmed to share our private information with advertisers over back-channels of which we are not aware he says. Lenovo used to sell its computers with a program called “Superfish” preinstalled. The program was intended to allow Lenovo—or companies that paid it—to secretly insert targeted advertisements into the results of users’ web searches. Samsung smart televisions listened in on conversations in the livingroom and bedroom and passed information along to advertisers.
In July it was revealed that Chinese authorities in the province of Xinjiang are forcing locals of the Uyghur Muslim minority to install an app on their phones that will allow the government to scan their device for “terrorist propaganda.” The app is called Jingwang (Citizen Safety) and was developed by the police. Police have stopped people on the street to check if they installed the app.
The question says Fairfield, ultimately, is who will control the so-called Internet of Things: us, the companies that tell our devices to spy on us, or the governments that seek to track and control their citizenry.
“Owned” explains how the increasing implementation of smart technology in our world today has changed the nature of property and is sending us back to the feudalism of the middle ages.
One key reason we don’t control our devices is that the companies that make them seem to think—and definitely act like—they still own them, even after we’ve bought them he notes. “The expansion of the internet of things seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law—intended to protect ideas—to control physical objects consumers think they own.”
He writes – some internet companies are conducting a quiet war on ownership. A purchase of a movie, e-book, or MP3 is a one-time payment for something you own from that point forward. Or, at least, it should be: Companies claim in hidden contractual clauses that we do not even own movies, music, or books that we buy outright. They do this to kill off the market for used movies, music, or books. If you’ve ever bought used textbooks for a class, you understand how much killing the secondary market hurts consumers: Everyone has to buy e-books for themselves, at full price.
In two years we will not own our ‘smart’ televisions which will also be used by advertisers to listen in to our living rooms. In the coming decade, if we do not take back our ownership rights, the same will be said of our self-driving cars and software-enabled homes. We risk becoming digital peasants, owned by software and advertising companies, not to mention overreaching governments.