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The Internet of Things…that spy on you

There is a sequence in the horror film 28 Days Later in which the protagonists find that they have to drive through a dark tunnel. As the car idles outside of the tunnel’s opening for a few moments it becomes obvious to the viewer that driving through the tunnel will not be without incident. After all, this is a scary movie, and in scary movies it is a cliché that the characters are going to do things that are clearly poor choices. And thus, in a moment of brilliance 28 Days Later gives voice to this absurdity, as the character Jim (Cillian Murphy) states:

“No, see, this is a really shit idea. You know why? Because it’s really obviously a shit idea.”

But then they drive into the tunnel anyways, where Jim’s (and the viewer’s) suspicion is proven to have been well founded. Yet, the sentiment that Jim’s lines capture so well applies with unnerving ease to settings beyond horror movies.

Case in point: CloudPets.

It seems that these cute Internet-connected stuffed animals (think: the Internet of Things in plush unicorn format) have been hacked, and the sensitive user data stolen in the hack may have been held for ransom. It’s true that in the genuine horror movie version of this story the hackers would have somehow discovered that CloudPets run on military software and can be turned into killing machines – but the reality of the hack is a bit more banal. No, the tale of CloudPets has far more in common with an episode of Black Mirror than it does with the plot of Terminator. The horror is of an everyday sort of creepiness and unease, not anxiety about killer robots. Nevertheless, when it comes to CloudPets it is difficult not to be reminded of Jim’s words of wisdom. Or, to give Jim’s words a bit of a flip, did anybody really think that CloudPets were a good idea?

Alas, evidently, some did. They did get made, sold…and hacked.

The problems generated by the cornucopia of connected crap known as the Internet of Things (IoT) are many and diverse. Some of them are inconveniences of the fairly innocuous variety – such as your coffeemaker needing to update its software before it can brew you your morning cup of Joe; while others are distinctly more worrisome – you learn that recordings made by the toy you bought your child have been hacked and posted online. The devices that make up this still nascent set of products provide a perfect example of the types of technologies about which it is important to ask: what could go wrong? And then, sadly, to recognize that it makes more sense to approach such incidents as probabilities than as possibilities.

Under the guise of convenience, security, or fun IoT devices place a person’s home at the center of an impressive web of corporate surveillance – with Amazon’s Echo casually listening to everything that gets said, while the Nest camera merrily films away, and as the CloudPets stuffed animal records the words between a parent and child. This is not to suggest that (to think in terms of Neil Postman’s questions to ask of new technology) that such devices offer no possible answer to the question “what is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” but rather to emphasize the questions such as “what new problems might be created?” as well as the more directly dire question of “what could go wrong?” are the more pertinent questions to mull over. Or, to put such questions in less abstract terms: where does this information harvested by IoT devices live? How secure is this information? What happens when that information falls into the hands of people harboring less-than-kind intentions? And how completely can you trust the company’s promises that your information is totally secure? Yes, the Nest camera may capture ne’er do wells breaking and entering your abode (the Nest website frames this as a selling point of the device) – but it may also capture you walking around in your underwear. And it is at least worth entertaining the possibility (prior to purchasing such a device) that at some point the stuff captured by your trusty IoT device could wind up online.

Furthermore, it is important to recognized that it isn’t just the IoT device’s owner who is put at risk by the device itself. Indeed, much of the hubbub around the CloudPets has to do with the fact that information was being exposed about children. But if a home that has a CloudPet also has a Nest camera (or similar device) than that child is also being captured there – and Amazon’s Echo is as happy to respond to commands from a five-year-old as from a thirty-five year old. Again, the point here is not to shriek “think of the children” but to instead say “think of all of the other people who you are putting at risk when you opt to fill your home with IoT devices.” The idea of the “privacy of your home” and the Internet of Things are irreconcilable – except insofar as a home is free from IoT devices.

Granted, it is somewhat challenging to refute the charge that such concerns are really just paranoia. However, as the case of CloudPets makes abundantly evident, sometimes paranoia proves well founded. And when it comes to technologies with impressive surveillance capabilities – particularly those that may be capturing us at our more private moments – sometimes it can be wise to assume the worst before it has a chance to happen. Furthermore, a point has been reached at which shrugging off such concerns as simply being the ramblings of individuals wearing tin-foil hats is a signal that one is either willfully self-deluded or selling something.

Things that are connected to the Internet may be hacked – or the data repositories saving the information culled from these devices may be hacked – it is fine to be outraged when such a hack occurs, but we’ve passed the point at which we can legitimately pretend to be shocked. True the IoT is sold on making our offline lives even easier and more seamlessly intertwined with our online lives, yet as Neil Postman observed in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“It is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.” (157)

The Internet of Things is a synonym for hackable devices that place you (as well as your friends and family) under constant surveillance. And this is every bit as true of Amazon’s sleek Echo as it is of CloudPets’ smiling blue rabbit.

The saga of CloudPets represents one of those somber teachable moments of the type that become teachable precisely because (once again) pessimism proved prescient. Alas, when it comes to the Internet of Things, Jim said it best:

“No, see, this is a really shit idea. You know why? Because it’s really obviously a shit idea.”


Works Cited

Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Related Content

Interrogating Technology

Neil Postman’s Questions to Ask of New Technology

A Mechanical Moses

An Island of Reason in the Cyberstream

What Could Go Wrong?

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “The Internet of Things…that spy on you

  1. Pingback: Apple is all ears | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on March 3, 2017 by in Capitalism, Impending Doom, Privacy, Surveillance, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , , .

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