George Boardman: Forget about the Russians and Chinese, your world is full of spies
July 16, 2017
Observations from the center stripe: Slow sales edition
BAD NEWS for the Green Screen Institute: Sales of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset are so slow, Facebook is cutting the price for the second time this year…ONE REASON the Russians had trouble hacking the election is the decentralized nature of our voting records. Now Trump’s voter fraud commission wants to assemble those records in one convenient place … ARE YOU truly shopping locally if the product was made in China?… DESPITE THEIR lousy record in recent years, the 49ers are the ninth most valuable sports franchise, according to Forbes magazine. Anybody who has paid for parking, a ticket and food at the new stadium understands why … NO CASH needed: Visa is encouraging small retailers to go completely cashless with cash grants to update transaction technology …
Whether you like it or not, the next new car you buy will be loaded with computer technology designed to enhance your driving experience. Whether you know it or not, there's a price to paid for these advances, and I'm not talking about the one on the sticker.
Cars have been equipped for years with features like OnStar, which can summon assistance in an emergency and kill the engine if a thief is driving, and GPS devices that can guide you to your destination and find a vehicle practically anywhere. Cars in showrooms today can practically do the driving for you.
The newest technology will keep you from driving out of your lane, apply the brakes when you get too close to another vehicle, park the car for you (within limits), provide a good picture of what's behind you, and — for all I know — provide a persuasive argument that can get you out of a speeding ticket.
But much of this technology is hooked up to the web, giving it the potential to become a surveillance device even if its original purpose was benign. "Cartapping," as some people call it, has been going on for over a decade, where almost real-time audio and location data can be retrieved when police order vehicle technology providers to hand it over.
If your car possesses SiriusXM satellite radio, OnStar or its competitors, various mapping technologies, or the new Wi-Fi-enabled entertainment systems, you are transmitting data that can and will be used against you in a court of law. Criminals who aren't attuned to the technology's capabilities have been convicted based on evidence of private conversations in the car, and tracking data showing when and where they were.
Of course, anything that can be computerized by man can also be hacked by man. Several tests have shown steering wheels can be disabled, brakes can be rendered useless, and other mayhem can be created by skilled hackers. We're probably not too far from the day somebody is convicted of murder for disabling the brakes on the victim's car.
But if you think you're safe from these intrusions when you get out of the car and enter your home, think again. All of those computerized devices Silicon Valley is developing for your home come with the same drawbacks as the gadgets they're putting in your car.
Leading the charge are voice-activated speakers that can double as a command center for the home. Amazon introduced the concept in 2014 with its Echo. Alphabet followed with Google Home in 2016, and others are crowding into the space. Marketing research firm eMarketer estimates about 36 million Americans will use a voice-activated speaker at least once a month this year.
The virtual assistants that power these speakers are increasingly being linked to everything from refrigerators to thermostats. More than 4 billion consumer devices will make use of some kind of digital assistant by the end of 2017, according to HIS Markit.
But these speakers can also be viewed as surveillance devices because they keep a record of every command you speak, and — in some cases — record unrelated conversations you have in the room. Devices like Echo and Alexa keep voice interactions until asked to discard them. Last year, Amazon was asked to hand over audio from a suspect's Echo during a murder investigation.
Apple stressed privacy when it recently announced its HomePod speaker, saying communications with the device will be encrypted and disassociated with the user after six months. Still, six months is a long time.
Even your children's toys aren't safe from snoops. Take My Friend Cayla, a doll developed by Genesis Toys of Los Angeles that will actually carry on a conversation with your daughter. You see, the doll is Bluetooth-enabled.
"Cayla can understand and respond to you in real time," Genesis says on its website. "Ask her questions about herself, people, places and things! She's the smartest friend you will ever have! … She is not just a doll … she's a real friend!"
But the doll can also be hacked, which makes Cayla a creepy friend. German authorities concluded recently that My Friend Cayla is like a spy, infiltrating children's bedrooms, gathering data and transmitting it. The authorities urged parents to destroy the doll.
You can make the argument that these new developments are a continuation of the invasion of our privacy that accelerated with the introduction of the worldwide web. We know that our online activities are routinely tracked to find out what we like and how they can better sell us products and services.
Outfits like Google and Facebook even use you as a guinea pig to figure out how to hit your hot buttons. It's called A/B testing, where different users are given variants of a website or purchasing button to test what small changes online make them more likely to click, read or buy something.
Regulators and elected officials don't seem to be concerned about this push to take away our privacy. Republicans claim to abhor big government's intrusion into our lives, but have no problem if internet devices do it. Democrats, champions of civil rights, aren't interested in restraining tech invaders.
So embrace as much of the brave new world as you like. Just understand there are consequences to these decisions.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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