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The internet, security and privacy

Security and privacy are always hot topics when it comes to discussions about the internet. And with the emerging internet of things, security and privacy questions are becoming even more prevalent.

It’s one thing to safeguard your passwords or to carefully designate who can view your online photos. But connecting your home to the internet? That could be dangerous — or just plain unnerving. Imagine someone hacks your house and can turn lights on and off, or open the front door at will. So it’s no surprise that many companies are spending a lot of money and engineering hours on making smart home systems safe and secure.

At the same time, a new generation of products is getting popular. Take Alexa (and her cousins): a microphone in the middle of the room where you call and she answers whatever your question may be. The weather in Rome. The news in Atlanta. The business hours of a nearby store. It’s essentially a browser you can talk to that understands what you are asking and, most of the time, provides solid answers.

This technology is a big step forward, both in technology and as a new way of connecting and interacting with the internet. The screen and keyboard are now a microphone and speaker. Technology prognosticators are already predicting that this method of computer interaction will soon become dominant.

So, back to security and privacy. Product manufacturers let us install passwords, and they implement encryption — along with a host of other security features — so that our secrets stay secret. But we suddenly fall in love with Alexa, believing that Alexa only listens if we say, “Hi Alexa,” before asking a question. Right? Just like we believe that our smartphone only listens if we say, “Hey Siri.” Right? Or that our voice-enabled remote control only listens if we push the voice button… (Right?)

Recently I met someone who had placed a sticker over the camera on his laptop. I asked him why, and the answer was not terribly surprising: “I want to make sure that I am not being watched.” But what about being listened to? Which is potentially more damaging — someone looking at your face while you are at your computer or someone able to listen to what you are saying anytime you are near the computer?

In addition to a sticker over the camera, should there be earbuds on the microphone? And what about cell phones? Is your cell phone listening to your conversations when you’re not using it? Well, probably not, at least not so far. But with this promising new user interface, replacing the keyboard and screen with a microphone and speaker is becoming mainstream.

Now, think about introducing this concept in every piece of equipment in our homes. We could talk to the washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator, television and so forth, but all these appliances and electronics would be permanently listening. What we say could be sent over the internet to an “interpreter” that translates words into code that can be executed, as if we had typed it into a browser. The result is either sent back over the internet as an action to “do something” (for example, turn on off the lights, start the dishwasher), or it is sent back as a voice stream that comes out of the speaker.

So, yes, we care about security and we heed the warnings to pay attention to privacy. But on the other hand, we all now walk around with cameras and microphones that 007 (the Sean Connery version, at least) could only dream of. How do we balance installing microphones in every room in our house with paranoia?

Product developers and manufacturers should put security and privacy first in building technology for voice-enabled wireless equipment like remote controls. Do not develop technology that listens to anything not intentionally shared — and, by the way, the remote batteries would die quickly without the option to turn the microphone on and off. But we cannot control who uses our technology, in what kinds of products and with what intent.

Put security and privacy first, not because there may be “a little man” in your TV listening to conversations in your living room, but because this next generation of technology is rolling out quickly and skyrocketing in popularity. Without putting security first, will there ever be a legal framework protecting the consumer and defining responsibilities? Who will be responsible if a third party hacks or otherwise abuses the technology capabilities?

Headline-making cyberattacks on big companies and their customers’ passwords, credit card numbers and email addresses are just the beginning. With the arrival of IoT and technology advancements in our homes and in our lives, security and privacy are becoming more important than ever.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.