The Surveillance State: Have Americans Unwittingly Opted In?

Let’s be honest. When was the last time you sat down and read through the entirety of an app or hardware devices terms of use? The usually thousands of words long legalese omelet is easily bypassed by scrolling to the bottom of the page and clicking on the “I agree” box and unfortunately, that’s what most Americans in the modern world of instant gratification tend to do.

I mean, all of these apps that we use on a regular basis to order food, listen to music, and even find a mate, require that we “opt in,” and whether we have a conscious understanding or what that truly means or not, doing so has allowed for everything from the contents of your inbox and contact list to control of your phones camera and microphone to be manipulated by the application.

A society once so afraid of first the possibility and later the reality of NSA spying has seemingly allowed it’s guard down to the point that most Americans are running around with apps on their phones that are designed by foreign companies, many of whom work under governments which can legally force the app maker to turn over the personal information of their user base.

Americans aren’t walking around with an attorney on their shoulders to help guide then through the ever-expanding app stores and the growing market of new “smart speaker” or “smart home” devices, so here are four important points to consider when choosing what apps or devices are right for you:

  1. Assume your “Smart Speaker” is always listening.

According to a report published by Consumer Watchdog, patents filed by makers of the leading smart speaker devices reveal the devices' potential use as surveillance equipment for massive information collection that can be leveraged for the purpose of intrusive digital advertising. The study also found that although the digital assistants are supposed to react only when they hear a so-called “wakeword,” the devices can be 'awake' even when users think they aren't listening.

  1. Windows 10 is spying on you.

Microsoft’s popular operating system’s Privacy Statement contains some pretty scary language regarding the scope of its data collection and the rationale behind its potential dissemination. If you had the patience to first read though the 12,000-word service agreement, you will find that the Privacy Statement clearly says, ‘we will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary,’

It goes on the explain that the information can be used to ensure compliance with the law, or to prevent the loss of life or serious physical injury to Microsoft customers, among other things, but the arbitrary nature of what can be considered Microsoft’s interpretation of what “Good Faith” is should be enough to concern any “woke” consumer.

  1.  “Smart Surveillance/Smart Home” systems are now partnering with police departments.

Residential surveillance camera company Ring, which is owned by Amazon, has partnered with an app called Neighbors, to create a “neighborhood watch” social network. It’s intended to do things like identify package thieves and to help find lost pets. At this point, over 50 police departments have partnered with Ring to offer free or discounted smart-camera systems to residents, raising concerns surrounding their partnerships with local law enforcement and the potential sharing of customer information without the consumer’s knowledge. Police want access to the security footage, but police who partner with Ring or other systems are supposed to only have access to footage if residents cooperate. Despite that, some police departments have attempted to circumvent the 4th Amendment in order to force the turnover of footage or requiring it be mandatory in some of the giveaway promotions. Ring is also a major contributor to the issue of increased false alarms faced by emergency response centers or public safety answering points (PSAPs) across the country. Whereas ADT alarm events are based on numerous datapoints and is a “smarter” alarm event, Ring’s DIY security systems have far higher rates of false alarms that make it to PSAPs.

With data breaches occurring on what seems to be a daily basis, the potential for hacking of camera feeds may compromise the safety of the owners of surveillance equipment as hackers can learn the habits and routines of homeowners, including their work schedules and any potential gaps where children may be left alone in the home. It was also revealed that Ring has had numerous privacy breaches -- most notably earlier this year its employees were found to be spying on customers through the Ring cameras!

  1. Phones, Smart Watches and other devices can be enabled to spy on you.

Your phone has a mic. Your smartwatch has a mic. With all this advancing technology, the potential for being spied on has never been higher in human history. At a cybersecurity conference this past March in Germany, security researcher Christopher Bleckmann-Dreher exposed in detail, the vulnerabilities in GPS enabled smartwatches. Dreher's started his research after Germany banned the sale of a brand of smartwatches that allowed parents to listen in on their children, due to a vulnerability that easily allowed hackers to snoop on children and families.

It’s 2019, people. We aren’t going back to the Stone Age, nor should we. But, in consideration of all the potential intrusions of privacy hiding in plain sight, it’s imperative that we truly understand the depth of access we are allowing into our lives the devices and applications that are supposedly designed to simplify it.

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