My fridge is listening to me
It seems oddly fitting that this week -- a week scarred by the bizarre and violent mass murder in San Bernardino -- that I received a LinkedIn invitation to connect with someone who listed this as their job description:
Install, maintain, and repair GPS, Wi-Fi, and security camera systems on tour buses. In 2010, working with grant money from Homeland Security, I installed security systems on a fleet of tour buses and I have been maintaining those systems since then. In 2011, I helped install multi-language listening systems on tour buses and have been the lead maintenance technician. Currently, I am project manager for upgrading a fleet of 50 tour buses with new GPS systems using Homeland Security grant monies. This requires coordinating with engineers of service providers to solve unusual, complex problems.
None of this should surprise me, yet still it does. I didn’t know Homeland Security was listening-in like that, did you?
And since they evidently are listening, shouldn’t they have told this guy to be quiet about it?
There is no presumption of privacy riding in a tour bus, so it probably isn’t illegal to listen-in. Bus security cameras and their footage have been around for years now and appear regularly on TV news after bus crimes. But there’s something about this idea of not only our actions being recorded but also our words that I find disturbing. It’s especially so when we consider the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT). What other devices will soon be snitching on us?
Innocent people have nothing to fear, we’ll be told, but with smartphones and smartwatches and smarthomes and smart refrigerators and cars with their own continuous LTE links, how far can we be from every one of us carrying a listening device? It happened already in a Batman movie, where Bruce Wayne hacked all the phones in Gotham City, leading to the protest resignation of Morgan Freeman as Batman’s tech guy. If something like this were to happen with the real telephone system, who would be our Morgan Freeman? I’m guessing nobody.
Then there’s Big Data fever. Everyone wants bigger data sets to justify more computers to analyze them. Every data center director since the first one was built has wanted more processors, memory, and storage. If we’re moving to listening in every language the processing power required will be huge -- another boon for the cloud.
One thing that struck me watching on TV the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack was how our first responders have changed. Not only do the police now have tanks, but a third of the big black SUVs parked outside the Inland Developmental Center were identified by the helicopters flying above as belonging to the Department of Homeland Security, those very grant-givers from LinkedIn. It’s a whole new layer of bureaucracy that will probably never go away.
I talked recently to the developer of a phone app that could, by using your smartphone mic as you drive, tell you when a tire is about to fail. In one sense it’s a brilliant application, but if your phone can hear clearly enough the difference between a good tire and a bad one then it can hear a lot of other things, too. I can only imagine what the back seat of my first car -- a 1966 Oldsmobile -- would have heard and reported on if we’d had this capability back in the day.
But the march of technological progress is inevitable so most of this will come to pass. And the fact that we have literal armies of hackers all over the world devoted to cracking networks suggests that once such a listening capability exists for any purpose someone will find a way to exploit it for every purpose.
Then life will become like an episode of Spy versus Spy from the Mad Magazine of our childhood with consumers buying technology to protect themselves. Tell me your kid won’t want that bug-sweeping app or the one that spoofs the insurance company GPS into thinking the car isn’t speeding after all.
And where will that leave us other than paranoid and in constant need of AA batteries? It won’t improve our quality of life, that’s for sure, and I’m willing to bet it won’t save many lives, either.