Big brother?

Big brother is truly watching us.     This week already I have read two articles in relation to devices we are now bringing into our homes to make life easier, however where there are other considerations which may be overlooked.

The first of the two article related to the Amazon Echo device (Amazon hands over Echo ‘murder’ data, BBC).   The Echo is one of a couple of voice activated devices which is designed to make life at home easier.     The idea is that you can control home internet enabled devices via voice commands and the Echo.     The recent adverts for the Echo include people using voice commands the help locate their mobile phone which has been humorously swallowed by the users dog, to turn on the lights at home and to change the volume on music which is being played as just some examples.    Google offer a similar device called the Google Home.

The issue here relates to privacy in that these devices are always listening with at least some of the data uploaded to a cloud server somewhere.    The purpose of gathering the data is to help in generating better and more accurate understanding of natural language so that the software within the devices can more accurately respond to human instructions and queries however the issue is not in the intended use, but in other possible uses.

An article on the BBC website refers to a murder case where the accused has consented to allow data gathered from an Echo device to be used in the case.    This clearly wasn’t the intended use of the data gathered by Echo.     In this case the outcome should hopefully be positive in helping to prove either guilt or innocence but other uses may be less than positive.      Would we be happy about the government, spy services, police, etc. spying on us using this data?    Would it be acceptable for this data to be used in user or home profiling by marketing companies?     Would it be acceptable to use this data in relation to identifying peoples political allegiances in the approach to an election?      These are just a couple of possible uses where the ethics are a little questionable.   There are likely to be many more possible uses with new uses continuing to emerge with new technologies.      Is the benefit of the device comparable to the risk or sacrifice?   Also, surely this data constitutes personal data so how is its sharing and processing controlled in relation to Data Protection and the soon to be implemented General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)?  Is the info in relation to this buried in difficult to understand and seldom read terms and conditions statements?

The second article related to the CIA and the recent leak of hacking tools which they had including tools designed to compromise Smart TVs (WikiLeaks says the CIA can use your TV to spy on you, Guardian).    Similar to the issue around the Echo, again we have an always listening device however in this case it is also always watching too, as it searches for gestures as part of its gesture control functionality.     Here the benefits are never losing your remote control down the side of the sofa, however the drawbacks seem to include the CIA being able to hack your system and watch what you are doing.     This also goes to show that although the purpose for the data was clear an outside actor, in this case the CIA, found a way to gain access and make use of it.   If they can do it, and given it is now public knowledge that it possible, it is highly likely others can or will also achieved this.   Again another internet enabled device brought into the home however again a risk.   Is the benefit of the device comparable to the risk or sacrifice?

The world loves its gadgets with people quickly adopting the next thing.    Vendors such as Google, Amazon and Samsung play to this while constantly striving to make their devices as secure and safe for their user base as possible.    The issue is that these vendors also want these devices to be easily installed and configurable by end users with limited IT abilities which limits the security options available.   It also tends to mean that a system of simplistic defaults is used meanwhile we have hackers and government sponsored agencies trying to compromise these devices.

I wonder whether as the Internet of things continues to take off we will see a growth in home infrastructure security devices.   I also wonder whether there is now a greater need to have discussions with students in schools in relation to these issues, including discussing specific incidents like the ones above.    We need the adults of the future to be able to judge and balance benefits against risks, in order to make informed decisions about the increasing number of internet enabled devices making their way into our homes.    We also need them, as they become the government officials of tomorrow, to understand the implications of technology.



Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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