Big Business Uses High-Tech Data Vampires to Spy on Consumers

Americans are deeply concerned over the issue of personal privacy and big business. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 93 percent of Americans declare that privacy is important to them.

In the same survey, Americans were also clearly aware that personal data about them was being captured, yet they expressed little confidence that this information was secure. Complicating this picture, a 2015 Gallup survey reported that less than a quarter of Americans have any confidence in big business, the leading aggregators of private consumer data.

So what does this citizenry concerned about their privacy and lacking confidence in corporate America do? They head off to their local big box stores or sit down at their computers to buy Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets that further compromise their privacy. At Home Depot, they pick up a Nest Learning Thermostat. Online, they buy an Amazon Echo, which Amazon says is "always getting smarter." Both Nest (owned by Google... sorry, I mean Alphabet) and Amazon explain that these devices are continuously connected to the cloud. Reviewing published information and the privacy policy legalese of these companies makes it abundantly clear that "learning" and "cloud-based" are catchwords for gathering information about users of these devices. In other words, it's big business spying on our personal lives.

The breathless marketing declarations by these companies of a George Jetson-like future for consumers masks the stark reality of a home invasion by "data vampires." The undisclosed back story is that these smart devices stealthily capture personal data about consumers in the privacy of their homes. Room occupancy, temperature, humidity, sounds, ambient light levels and even video images (via the Nest Cam) are streamed 24/7 into cloud-based big data systems. According to these businesses, the collection of this information is harmless and and meant only to deliver the benefits offered by their IoT devices.

After all, they assert, the smart homes promised by technological innovation offer both personal and societal benefits. These clever gadgets offer consumers new levels of convenience and more secure homes while everybody is better off when scarce, polluting resources are used more wisely. This may be true, but big businesses and high-tech startups alike are salivating over the gold they can mine from these vast stores of consumer information. As Google has proven, the real money is in understanding the consumer through data collection, not selling home automation hardware.

Even more alarming than the risk to consumers of compromised personal privacy is a new opportunity for digital prowlers to enter their homes. The same technology that makes it easy for data vampires to send their payloads of personal data to the cloud provides a well-understood pathway to hackers. While the risk may be modest, it is technically possible for remote users to gain control of these cloud-based devices. The results could be merely a nuisance if a hacker fiddles with room temperature but, as these devices proliferate and consumers grow increasingly dependent on them, the risks could become life-threatening.

The Internet of Things is being hyped as the next big wave in computing. Big businesses and venture capital investors are lusting after the fortunes that could be made from the information collected by tiny data vampires installed in consumer's homes, woven into the fabric of the clothing they wear and even implanted in their bodies. Before opening their homes to the Internet of Things, consumers need to assert their rights to personal privacy and personal control. They would do well to adopt the principles in the consumer bill of rights proposed by the Open IoT Foundation to guide their purchase of IoT devices.

Consumers do have choices. They can choose not to let IoT data vampires into their homes. They can demand that companies offer them IoT devices that don't compromise their privacy or the control of their personal environments. And they can insist their elected representatives enact regulations restricting the quantity and type of information that can be collected by big business.

If consumers assert their rights, IoT technology will emerge that delivers the future imagined by the creators of the George Jetson television series--without risking their privacy and control. But if we quietly submit to the data vampire-like IoT offerings from big business, we face a future of an all-knowing corporate Big Brother envisioned by George Orwell.

Gary Ebersole is co-founder of the Open IoT Foundation. He blogs at Data Vampires Chronicle and Medium.