In the two years since our first post on privacy and the Internet of Things, the number of “smart devices” on the market has exploded. Driven by the ethos that a networked world is universally a better world (or at least a more profitable one), engineers, designers, and marketers have sought to liberate us from traditional (i.e. dumb?) tech.
But in this attempt to bring the Internet into every corner of the physical world, are we approaching an absurdist level of connectivity? According to the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, the answer is yes. When smart umbrellas, garbage cans, jars, and even smart tampons are soon to hit the market, we’ve officially met “the Internet of Too Many Things.”
Promises of convenience and insight are commonplace among the Internet of Things, but promises of privacy are often fleeting or false. Security experts have already identified exploits in smart toys and baby monitors. As the Internet of Things expands to encompass more and more of our everyday objects, it’s reasonable to expect similar security lapses will be exposed in other smart objects, especially if IoT industry standards for privacy by design are neglected.
While it’s unsettling enough to imagine prying eyes listening through a smart TV or spying via our home security system, imagine what it might be like as the technology becomes even more intimate.
Big Data from the Bedroom
Do we really want companies joining us in the bedroom? A recent exposé of We-Vibe’s “We-Vibe 4 Plus” sex toy reveals companies already are. At the hacker conference Defcon in Las Vegas, two researchers confirmed the smart vibrator transmits information back to the manufacturer about device temperature and vibration level.
Vice’s Motherboard article about the streaming sex toy discusses not only the privacy issues related to the data, but also the risks of corporate blackmail, hacking the device, and putting customers in legal peril should the possess the device where sex toys are criminalized. While We-Vibe claims the data is collected for “market research purposes,” the question remains: Do we want big data maintained about our sex lives?
Revelations About Reproductive Health
Fertility tracking and family planning are a big draw for technology companies attracted to big data. From smart thermometers wed to fertility charting apps to period and ovulation tracking, women’s bodies appear to be a fertile forum for venture capital.
But the profound emotional and legal issues surrounding reproductive rights make this sort of data intensely personal, and when it comes to gathering, storing, and utilizing this information, companies should put a premium on protecting their customers. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
This summer a Consumer Reports investigation called out Glow Inc. for security flaws related to this sort of information.
As this TechCrunch article highlights, researchers were able to access
“data and comments about users’ sex lives, history of miscarriages, abortions and more, through a privacy loophole having to do with the way the app allowed couples to link their accounts and share data.”
Though Glow promptly issued a fix to resolve the issue, the lapse in security underscores some unsettling questions. In the rush to aggregate and leverage data about our bodies, can we really trust companies to reasonably anonymize and protect our data? Is there a vague tinge of misogyny lurking in these products which commodify women’s intimate information? Where is the consideration of how women wish to use these products while retaining their privacy?
The “Internet of Too Many Things” reminds us that we are not subject to automatic upgrades when it comes to what we share about ourselves. Our privacy practice should include awareness and discernment regarding which of the objects in our world truly need to be smart.