A detour into cyberland

Being married to an uber-geek who teaches cybersecurity means I have lots of escape keyboarddiscussions about, well, cybersecurity – specifically Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s great fodder for my crime novels, and a new series I’m working on features a female hacker (think a kinder Lisbeth Salander). But much of it also gives me pause.

Hubby and I debate the wisdom of self-driving cars and semis, warn our friends and kids about smart home technology, and lock down our computers and phones in ways the average user would never think of (or know how to). At times, the fear of being a “fuddy-duddy” (there’s an old-fashioned word for you!) is debated, too, but we’re far from Luddites. It’s not the technology that gives us pause, it’s the motivation and the very real threat of intrusion behind it.

A recent article in The Guardian discusses Shoshana Zuboff’s new book The Age of Surveillance Capital and how the minutia of our lives has become the new hot commodity:

“Nearly every product or service that begins with the word ‘smart’ or ‘personalised’, every internet-enabled device, every ‘digital assistant’, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.”

And they don’t just vacuum up huge swaths of data; they manipulate our behavior:

“It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. These processes are meticulously designed to produce ignorance by circumventing individual awareness and thus eliminate any possibility of self-determination. As one data scientist explained to me, ‘We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way… We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.’”

 “Dance like no one is watching?” Hmmm…not only are businesses watching, but they’re calling the tune!

My take on that issue is, in large part, that the horse has long ago left the barn. Since the first home computers hit the family room desk, we’ve been ceding more and more privacy for the sake of convenience. But that doesn’t mean I’ll go down without a fight. Again in The Guardian, an article details why there will not be an Alexa, Google Home Hub, or Facebook Portal in our home:

“Unpacking [Google Home Hub] and installing it was a breeze, particularly if you skip past the screens telling you how Google shares your data with commercial businesses, that it saves your activity ‘on Google sites, apps and services’, including every website you access via Chrome and monitors the battery level on your smartphone and how often you use it.’ (emphasis added)

“’It’s pretty clear that Amazon and Google are losing money on every device they sell,’ says Ed Thomas, principal analyst at technology analysis firm GlobalData. But the giant loss-leaders serve a higher purpose. ‘The hardware revenue they’ll derive from those sales is secondary to what the speaker delivers for them: they get a vast amount of extremely valuable user data. … ‘We generally assume that they collect all the data their sensors enable them to collect, but we don’t know the sensors’ capacity or how long they retain the data they collect,’ explains Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights group, who warns that privacy laws have not kept up with technology.”

So we’ll side-step the fuddy-duddy issue and turn back to security. Does it really matter if Alexa knows when you do your laundry?

“’Collecting information like your power usage can reveal detailed personal information depending on the frequency of collection, such as what hours you keep, when you turn on your washing machine and when you’re out of town,’ says Tien.”

Because all this data is transmitted to Google et al via the Internet, it’s hackable. It goes way beyond baby monitors and smart keys, and all that access is a goldmine for thieves. And those security concerns aren’t confined to the home.

AI in self-driving vehicles worry me as much for the massive job losses it will inflict on the trucking industry as well as for safety – or lack thereof – on the road. The technology simply isn’t there to predict and react to every foible of human behavior behind the wheel.

And hackers? Hubby’s latest read, computer security expert Bruce Schneier’s latest book Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World, starts with a chilling scenario played out on a St. Louis highway in 2015 (described in an article from Wired.com):

“I WAS DRIVING 70 mph on the edge of downtown St. Louis when the exploit began to take hold.

Though I hadn’t touched the dashboard, the vents in the Jeep Cherokee started blasting cold air at the maximum setting, chilling the sweat on my back through the in-seat climate control system. Next the radio switched to the local hip hop station and began blaring Skee-lo at full volume. I spun the control knob left and hit the power button, to no avail. Then the windshield wipers turned on, and wiper fluid blurred the glass.

As I tried to cope with all this, a picture of the two hackers performing these stunts appeared on the car’s digital display…”

Sure, that was in 2015, but while automakers insist technology has improved and patches have been initiated, the Wired investigators “estimated that there are as many as 471,000 vehicles with vulnerable Uconnect systems on the road” five years ago. How often do you install security updates on your laptop?

I don’t intend to be a fearmonger (too many of those in society as it is), but where does all that leave us? Aware, informed, skeptical. Unplugging when I can. Skipping the latest-and-greatest until (if?) security regulations catch up with technology. Hoping against hope that saner minds and better angels will prevail.

I hope…

What keeps you up at night?!

3 responses to “A detour into cyberland”

  1. Great article! I have occasional pangs about the information I freely share and how it is being used, but most of the time I’m more in the “what’s one to do?” mode. While I don’t have as many smart devices as some people, I’m active on social media and I seldom hesitate to use public wifi to check FB, IG, and Twitter from my phone. But, there will never be a Siri on my phone (that I know of) or an Alexa in our house. As someone said, “If you’re not paying (or not paying much) for a product, you are the product.”


  2. Wow. This is a powerful article, Cyndi, one which validates my own concerns about the accumulation of personal data. I am constantly chilled by how quickly and easily people turn over their lives to technology. Thanks for the warnings!


    1. As I said, I hate to be a fear-monger, but awareness is so important!


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