UPDATED 10:50 EST / JANUARY 10 2013


Big Brother’s Big Data: Why We Must Fear The Internet Of Things

When the visionary George Orwell first wrote about Big Brother using ‘telescreens’ as a means of spying on the general population, little did he know that this was but the tip of the iceberg. With the emergence of the “Internet of Things” and all of the benefits that this will bring, the very notion of privacy will cease to exist.

As The Internet of Things evolves into a reality, with everything from smartphones, TVs, fridges and even cutlery being wired into the mainframe, the opportunity for governments, advertisers and criminals to monitor every aspect of our lives has never been so great. Whereas before, the FBI had to install bugs in our homes to carry out surveillance operations, now we’re actually buying them and installing them ourselves.

Should we be afraid? If you believe the words of former CIA chief Dan Petraeus (admittedly not the most trustworthy of characters!), then yes you should. You should be very afraid…

“Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation internet using abundant, low-cost, and high-power computing,” Petraeus admitted in an interview last year.

But it’s not just Petraeus who’s hinting at a sinister future for the connected world. As far back as 2005, a UN report on the nascent Internet of Things issued a stern warning about its darker characteristics:

“The next logical step in this technological revolution (connecting people anytime, anywhere) is to connect inanimate objects a communication network. This is the vision underlying the Internet of things. The use of electronic tags (e.g. RFID) and sensors will serve to extend the communication and monitoring potential of the network of networks, as will the introduction of computing power in everyday items such as razors, shoes and packaging. Advances in nanotechnology (i.e. manipulation of matter at the molecular level) will serve to further accelerate these developments.”

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The UN report, now eight years old, was unnervingly accurate in its predictions. Today, ‘smart homes’ have already become a reality, as have the networks of sensors and RFID tags needed to allow everyday items to communicate with each other.

Never before have there been so many open ‘windows’ for outsiders to pry into our lives. Before much longer, we’ll have to turn our backs on society and become virtual recluses in order to escape the eyes and ears growing all around us.

The Internet of Things is Already Watching You

The UN talked about advances in nanotechnology and how these developments will serve to accelerate a big brother state, but if the truth be told, the amount of surveillance going on is already frightening. Let’s take a look at some examples.

If you own a Microsoft Xbox, you’ve already lost all semblance of privacy you thought you had. Microsoft fits out its Kinect devices with a video camera and microphone, ostensibly to improve your gaming experience and level of enjoyment – but if you read the small print in its terms and conditions, you’ll realize that all users “should not expect any level of privacy concerning your use of the live communication features”. In addition, the company states that it “may access or disclose information about you, including the content of your communications.”

Not to be outdone, last year it was revealed that Google had applied to patent a technology that listens to the ambient background noise whilst you’re talking on your phone or computer microphone – technology that helps it to understand where you are and what you are doing, so it can deliver highly targeted advertising at you.

Sounds alarming, but then consider what Verizon recently tried to patent. Not content with just listening to your daily activities, the mobile phone carrier wants to watch everything you do as well. Its super-creepy tech involves installing a camera in your TV or DVR and using this to monitor everything that takes place in your living room. So the next time you start making out on the sofa, don’t be surprised if your TV suddenly bombards you with ads for contraceptives and kills the mood J

It’s not just our own gadgets we need to worry about. Even the most innocuous of items will soon be used to hunt you down. Like eco-friendly LED lights, for example, (the kind installed in most new government and office buildings these days) which are able to “transmit data to specially equipped computers on desks below by flickering faster than the eye can see.”

And of course, don’t go thinking that you can just step outside and leave your smartphone at home to be safely out of harm’s way. You’ll need to keep your wits about you, especially if you live in Chicago, Detroit or Pittsburgh – three cities were a number of ‘smart streetlights’ have been installed which can record your every move, listen to everything you say, and report all of this back to higher powers.

Why You Should Be Scared

The Internet of Things has been shaped by advertisers and marketers. As well as the usual suspects like Google and Facebook, retailers and other businesses all have their eyes and ears wide open (quite literally, in some cases) as they attempt to learn everything there is to know about you. You took the decision to sacrifice your freedom the day you bought a smartphone or a computer into your home – and now all of these technologies will be used against you, harvesting information about your life and selling it to big corporations.

You might consider yourself to be safe from the prying eyes of the state, given that governments face numerous legal restrictions when it comes to spying on people. But in actual fact, authorities in the US are allowed to collect a worryingly large amount of data from all manner of sources and store this for as long as they want.

Further, the FISA Amendments Act, passed by a certain Mr. Bush in 2008, allows government agencies to monitor all electronic communications in the US where it’s ‘suspected’ that either the sender or the receiver was based overseas – something that could presumably extend to all manner of services based in the cloud, where many data centers are based overseas.

Finally, there’s the criminal threat. No matter how secure our systems are, hackers can always find a way through whatever level of protection you might have, just ask any number of US banks. And don’t think that it’s just your personal information that you have to worry about – the more ‘wired up’ we become, the more exposed we become.

Soon, we might have devices that allow use to drive our cars remotely using our smartphones, something that sounds tantalizing at first, until you consider the risk. If you can connect to your car from a remote location, then so can anyone else, including young hooligans that might decide to hack into your shiny BMW and take it for a spin – grand theft auto by remote control, it’s no laughing matter…

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