Your digital devices are watching and listening to you

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Samsung has advised users of its televisions not to speak aloud in front of it! I’m serious. Specifically the corporation suggested not speaking personal information aloud. You see the device, which can be voice activated, is in a constant start of alertness, ready for your command. It is recording all you say and, according to Samsung (as reported by the BBC), “Such TV sets “listen” to every conversation held in front of them and may share any details they hear with Samsung or third parties”.

Of course, that particular revelation is hidden in a privacy policy and not offered to customers as a matter of course. Luckily it was reported by the Daily Beast.

You might be shocked that your TV is spying on you. You might be disappointed that corporations who claim that customer care is their priority don’t bring such things directly to your attention.

But this is now the norm in the digital inferno. Without conscious placement of your digital devices and technologies, you simply are at their mercy.

The notion of devices snooping on us first came to light in the media when we heard of how easy it is for hackers to turn our own web cams on us and to record whatever we are doing. There is now a growing market in little covers for our cams (though a bit of sticky tack will also do the trick a lot more cheaply. Even then, audio can still be picked up. We were advised to change passwords. But the mechanics of that are not simple for many who expect to plug, play and simply trust.

The world of computer viruses that put trojans and keyloggers into our devices (able to collect personal information, record every key press we make – handy for grabbing passwords and bank card details) were the territory of the hacker – or so we thought. Think again, with a snooping TV, the corporation can now observe our behaviour and use it for marketing (or other) purposes as well.

Do you want that?

I believe it is the first technological step into a world where transparency (our transparency that is) is the default.

What I call “placement” in my book, Digital Inferno, is a skill. it is the ability to place our digital devices and content in time and physically in our world. We decide when to connect. We decide what we share, when and with who. We are the ones who place the digital in our lives.

What the Samsung story reveals is that, because we have become so accepting and even passive in the face of digital snooping and intrusion, the corporations are now doing placement for us, even in our own homes. When the providers take over, it is they who decide what we look at and hear, and when. They decide when to notify us. They decide how we are to be stimulated, and now they are deciding how we should behave in our living rooms: “Please do not say X to your family as we and our friends may be listening in and watching.”

Now one view is that these very innovations help to describe a positive and new future that is arriving. The world is changing! What have we got to hide? The benefits far outweigh the concerns as benevolent and intelligent digital technologies can tune into our world made transparent, collect data, improve and innovate and respond to our behaviour delivering ever better products and services into our lives. This is just the start and we just need to accept the change and take the evolutionary step.

The more prevalent view is one of shock, indignation, even outrage. How dare these corporations assume we are tools for their greed? What right does anyone have to invade our privacy and hide this invasion in small print privacy policies? Such development point to a darker future, the world of Orwell’s 1984 made real. We need to keep these devices out of our houses, sue the corporations for spying and put up ever stronger walls of privacy protection around us.

A third view is a blend of both of the above – the view in which we remain the masters of this technology and these forces that would like to observe our behaviour and listen to our private conversations. Currently transparency and privacy invasion is becoming the default and we might not want that. Yet we might also want a Smart TV in our homes and to enjoy what other new technologies have to offer. In which case, we need to meet these denizens of the digital inferno with some control and consciousness of our own.

To reclaim your house, you’ll need to practice some conscious placement of the digital realm within it. Here are a few practical guidelines…

Five Tips for Keeping Digital Snoopers Out of Your Home

1. Be very wary of voice activated gadgets. Read the small print, especially in privacy policies

2. Get clued up on security of all your devices, not just your laptop, phone or router. As wearables and the “internet of things” comes more into our lives, you’ll need to understand how security impacts on all of these gadgets

3. Cover up your web cams and learn how to truly mute devices.

4. Locate your devices in particular parts of the house. Not every room needs a device with a web cam in it. 

5. Switch devices fully off when you aren’t using them. Regularly sweep devices for spyware and other viruses. (Invest in decent digital security). Your digital home also needs intrusion detection.

This isn’t about spoiling the digital party. But corporations are now trying to make listening in and snooping a normal practice. They may well be doing this for benevolent reasons – to improve your “user experience”. But when data is passed on to third parties, linked to advertising and other marketing agendas, soon your own home will no longer be your own.

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Paul Levy 29 Articles
Paul Levy is a writer, a facilitator, senior researcher at the University of Brighton, founder of FringeReview, and author of the book Digital Inferno, published in 2014 by Clairview Books.

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