The other day our flat screen smart tv announced it had just received a firmware update from the manufacturer. Oh, super, we thought. Maybe they enhanced its performance in some way.
Not exactly. What they did was change some of the "privacy" settings, and let us know, not because they wanted to, but because they were required to and needed our permission to basically eavesdrop on our every move. Uh, thanks, but no. We don't want any.
This really brought home what Wikileaks recently revealed about the CIA and their information gathering methods. Assuming you can believe Wikileaks, our government has been gleaning some of the most private and personal information about you and me, not by waterboarding, but by snooping on us in technologically sneaky ways. They have been eavesdropping us via our computers and smartphones as well as many other devices connected to the so-called Internet Of Things.
We already know how Google and slimy outfits like Facebook and aol and countless others gather personal information from users, collect that data, and sell it to commercial enterprises. No news there. And there is a good argument for why they do it—in addition to their collecting billions of bucks in the process. This data allows advertisers to better target people who might be excellent prospects for what they are selling. So the thinking goes, people will see more relevant advertising about things they are interested in and less of the things they aren't. Which sounds fine. Who wants to be inundated with ads for crap we don't want or need? Spare me, please.
But as the technology has become more sophisticated, and the people collecting the data are the ones who decide how they use it and to whom they sell it, things get stickier.
Case in point: During the recent election campaign, Facebook decided to send its own messages to members in certain election districts who they believed were affiliated with a particular party. We hear much about foreign agencies messing around with our election, but this is just as troubling. Putting a thumb on the scales isn't to be taken lightly.
Until the Wikileaks disclosure, most people didn't realize how sneaky the latest technology has become. We already knew they could read our emails and text messages. But by surreptitiously slipping malware programs into our personal computers and smartphones and other smart devices, they can read and/or listen to our keystrokes and essentially look over our shoulder as we type and record the websites we visit. Thanks to those smart tvs, like the ones in our home, and helpful—and supposedly harmless—internet-connected little devices like Amazon's Alexa and even talking (and recording) teddy bears, eavesdropping on the unsuspecting populace has exploded. We are being hacked over and over and over again. It has become a constant.
Eavesdropping will only increase as the Internet of Things expands, All those helpful little internet connected devices come with a string attached. Take Alexa, for example. It "plays all your music from Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more using just your voice .. Fills the room with immersive, 360º omni-directional audio ... Hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even while music is playing ... Answers questions, reads the news and more using the Alexa Voice Service ... Controls lights, fans, switches, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, locks, and more with compatible connected devices from WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Nest, ecobee, and others ... and is Always getting smarter and adding new features, plus thousands of skills like Uber, Domino's, and more."
Sounds great until you realize that Alexa is eavesdropping on you as well. Casually mention "Boy, i could sure go for a pizza right now," and if you aren't careful a young lad might come by with a hot pie within 30 minutes.
Turning lights off when I left a room became a habit with me (thanks, Mom and Dad). Now you would be wise to turn everything off when you enter a room. And that means you Alexa and all your friends.
A few months ago I was invited to sign up for an email service that automatically encrypts your email messages as you send them so they are received encrypted. The party you send them to needs a special key to de-encrypt and read them. You provide that key—in advance. That way no one can at least read your emails in between point A and point B, and your IP address is also hidden from prying eyes.
I'm not a potential terrorist, don't plan on getting into the espionage game, and even the best of what I email is hardly worth the attention of the CIA or the KGB. But I believe I'll experiment with ProtonMail to see how it works—or doesn't work—and follow up with a report. You might want to try it yourself. Visit protonmail.com.
ProtonMail is based in Switzerland, which has established its own privacy protections. I don't know if they'll prove any better than the ones we have here in the U.S.A., land of liberty. At the very least, with ProtonMail you can always impress your friends by casually dropping the fact that you have a "Swiss Account." You need say nothing more.
I imagine the guys at CIA and KGB and their counterparts in China will get a laugh out of that—at least the first time they hear it. Right guys???