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Smart Home Technology: Thought Police in the 21st Century

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Smart Home Technology is monitoring and reporting personal lives. Photo: Google

From smart meters to smart phones, the world has seen increased development of new technologies over the last decade, allowing companies the ability to slowly become major actors in the world of law enforcement and national security.

As the world enters what technology experts are calling the “fourth industrial revolution”, Ethan Nash explores growing evidence suggesting that smart home technology was designed to be a surveillance intermediary for police and intelligence organisations.

THE RISE OF ‘SMART TECHNOLOGY’

Smart technology can make daily tasks simpler, quicker and more convenient.

Many of us already have a smartphone in your pocket which enables you to communicate in countless different ways with people around the world, or a smart TV in your living room with built-in internet connectivity on which you can watch thousands of films.

The pace of change has been remarkable. Smartphones and smart TVs only came into existence ten years ago, and yet they have now become part and parcel of everyday life. Many of us have become so reliant on these devices that we would find it hard to go even one day without them.

This rapidly developing technology is just the tip of the iceberg. Some industry experts predict that over the next few years we could all be living in a much more connected ‘smarter’ world.

It is already possible to have a smart fridge in your kitchen which creates shopping lists and allows you to access cameras remotely to see what food and groceries you might be running low on, while the cities of the future could see everything from self-driving smart cars to smart rubbish bins connected to a ‘smart national network’.

New technologies such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home have become increasingly popular as of late, with advertisements and marketing for ‘convenience’ on the rise.

Though researchers have begun studying these technologies themselves, there has been little study of the end users of modern smart technology: what are their mental models, security and privacy concerns, mitigation strategies, and how does the presence of multiple users compound these issues?

ALEXA: STAR WITNESS?

According to new reports, Amazon’s Alexa might have been listening when Christine Sullivan was stabbed to death in the kitchen of the New Hampshire home earlier this year.

An article published by the Brisbane Times describes how US state prosecutors are hoping the device will produce key evidence in the murder case against Timothy Verrill, who is accused of killing Sullivan and her friend, Jenna Pelligrini.

Prosecutors say Alexa, the artificial woman who personifies the Amazon Echo smart device, was sitting on the kitchen counter the entire time.

“The court finds there is probable cause to believe the server(s) and/or records maintained for or by Amazon.com contain recordings made by the Echo smart speaker from the period of Jan. 27 to Jan. 29, 2017 … and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen.”

Technology has long been used a vital tool for surveillance entities and law enforcements, both domestically and overseas.

Australian government agencies accessed telecommunications data over 250,000 times in 2012 without an explanation – so this is nothing new.

RELATED: Erosion of Privacy in Australia: Basic Facts

However, the rise of what is dubbed ‘digital social spying’ – i.e companies such as Facebook and Google that mine data in mass externally – has allowed a seamless backdoor to usher in a new scope of authoritarian powers.

Could these new ‘smart devices’ become the next step of an already ongoing state of never-ending surveillance and monitoring?

“SURVEILLANCE INTERMEDIARIES”

In a recent article by Harvard Law Review, Professor Alan Rozenshtein dubs these technology companies “surveillance intermediaries” – entities that sit between law enforcement agencies and the public’s personal information.

The article also describes the increased use of technology companies by law enforcement agencies over the years, particularly in the United States – one of our ‘Five Eyes’ partners:

“Facebook received 32,716 requests for information from U.S. law enforcement between January 2017 and June 2017. These requests covered 52,280 user accounts and included 19,393 search warrants and 7632 subpoenas.

In the same time period, Google received 16,823 requests regarding 33,709 accounts and Twitter received 2111 requests regarding 4594 accounts.

Each company produced at least some information for about 80% of requests.”

The author also describes how new surveillance intermediaries – the next step of the process – play a significant role already in our law enforcement and national security apparatus,

Their behavior also plays a role that varies significantly over time and between companies, leaving them the power to decide just how easy or difficult it will be for law enforcement to access that information.

RELATED: Big Brother is here, and his name is Facebook

This encompasses a complex web of different user bases, business models, income streams, and public relations strategies.

THE SHIFT TOWARDS ‘SMART HOMES’

Many privacy groups and civil liberty campaigners have expressed concerns with the eventual path this type of technology may take, especially with little to no safeguards in place to protect consumers from the pending shift to a immersed digital augmented world.

Currently, products such as XFinity Home offer the latest in home automation technology: smart energy management, remote-controlled door locks and in-home video surveillance. All of these features and more are conveniently accessible from smartphones, tablets and a web-based portal.

The hyper-connected smart home of the future promises to change the way we live. More efficient energy usage, Internet-connected appliances that communicate with one another and cloud-enhanced home security are just some of the conveniences we’ll enjoy.

Overseas, nearly half of US consumers (48%) intend to buy at least one smart home device in 2018, a 66% rise year-over-year (YoY), according to Parks Associates.

Indeed, everybody from giant Internet service providers to scrappy startups are getting in on the smart home game, building products that will make our homes more ‘efficient’ and ‘livable’.

“The information that’s available in a smart home can be really extraordinarily detailed,” says Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“I can see some really bad outcomes from this kind of wired world.

The most obvious one is that third parties like law enforcement, courts and marketers can get access to more private information about consumers.”

Before long, Jetsons-style robots will be feeding our pets.

If you think digital privacy is a contentious issue now, just wait.

Are you ready for this coming digital world?

DISCUSSIONS

Listen to Lindsay, John and Ethan discuss concerns about Australia’s transformation to a digital ‘smart country’ on a past featured segments on the Australian Roundtable Podcast:

Listen to our podcasts any time on our Podcasts tab or via the Podcasts Archive!

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RELATED LINKS

Alexa may have ‘witnessed’ double murder | Brisbane Times

End User Security & Privacy Concerns with Smart Homes | University of Washington

The Rise of Smart Technology | saga.co.uk

Big Brother is here, and his name is Facebook | TOTTNews.com

Parents opt-out of classroom technology amid privacy concerns | TOTTNews.com

Who Has Your Back? | EFF.org

Australia’s rapid shift to digital identification and licenses | TOTTNews.com

Privacy nightmare’: Concerns over new encryption bill | TOTTNews.com

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