Digital Bedbugs

Scientists have recently mapped the complete genome of Cimex lectularius at the exact same moment that corporations have created digital bed bugs, tiny devices able to do far more than just suck your blood: They can spy on you.

But that’s not the only thing in your home that may have eyes, ears and more: Even your door lock may provide the key for big corporations to access your personal privacy, according to a new study entitled, Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the ‘Going Dark’ Debate.

The report by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, reveals just some of the technology already doing undercover work for tech companies.

“Appliances and products ranging from televisions and toasters to bed sheets, light bulbs, cameras, toothbrushes, door locks, cars, watches and other wearables are being packed with sensors and wireless connectivity,” the study reveals.

All these devices can be “connected to each other via the Internet, transmitting telemetry data to their respective vendors in the cloud for processing.”

It turns out that every cloud does have a silver lining — for big business and spy agencies, at least.

The list of corporations developing merchandise capable of snooping on their customers is a virtual who’s who of the world of high tech.

“Phillips, GE, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Tesla, Samsung, and Nike are all working on products with embedded IoT (Internet of Things) functionality.”

The scale and extent of these new spying technologies go far beyond the dark inventions of an Ian Fleming or a Iain Banks, and mask real potential for sinister use.

These technologies include: “Sensors ranging from gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, proximity sensors, microphones, speakers, barometers, infrared sensors, fingerprint readers, and radio frequency antennae,” all created “with the purpose of sensing, collecting, storing, and analyzing fine-grained information about their surrounding environments.”

Ironically the initial goal of the report, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was not to reveal the extent of corporate spying but to “begin to work through some of the particularly vexing and enduring problems of surveillance and cybersecurity.”

Toward that aim the “group” brought together “security and policy experts from academia, civil society, and the U.S. intelligence community.” During what they described as a “public debate,” they explored concerns by the NSA and other spy agencies that new encryption technology on cell phones and other devices might prevent them from monitoring communications by terrorists and other criminal groups.

After rigorous discussion, the majority of participants agreed that focusing on the use of encryption devices “does not capture the current state and trajectory of technological development.”

“A plethora of networked sensors are now embedded in everyday objects,” the findings state. “These are prime mechanisms for surveillance.”

In one of the few mentions of the potential perils of such developments the Harvard group acknowledged that these technologies “raise troubling questions about how exposed to eavesdropping the general public is poised to become.”

Yet with an ebullient and dangerous detachment, the report suggests the “‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) promises a new frontier for networking objects, machines, and environments in ways that we are just beginning to understand.

“When, say, a television has a microphone and a network connection, and is reprogrammable by its vendor, it could be used to listen in to one side of a telephone conversation taking place in its room – no matter how encrypted the telephone service itself might be.”

“These forces are on a trajectory towards a future with more opportunities for surveillance,” the report concludes matter-of-factly.

As if to reassure the NSA and other spy agencies that they need not fret about lost reconnaissance due to encryption devices, the Harvard group asserted “The audio and video sensors on IoT devices will open up numerous avenues for government actors to demand access to real-time and recorded communications.”

The study findings do suggest that the “Internet of Things” devices could pose a threat to civil liberties, especially for those who live in “totalitarian societies.” However the participants did not include a definition of a totalitarian regime, and for good reason: Given the current state of affairs, the United States of America would likely fit the description.

The report cited examples of the dangers of IoT technology that have already appeared in the media.

According to the document, “In February 2015, stories surfaced that Samsung smart televisions were listening to conversations through an onboard microphone and relaying them back to Samsung to automatically discern whether owners were attempting to give instructions to the TV.”

The study went on to report that, “A statement published in Samsung’s privacy policy instructed users to ‘be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of the Voice Recognition.’”

Another case involving an “in-automobile concierge system,” was also described, one that “enables the company to remotely monitor and respond to a car’s occupants through a variety of sensors and a cellular connection.”

You have probably seen these devices promoted by car manufacturers on TV. Through a cellular connection a driver can speak with a company representative who can remotely monitor the car’s computer and, through software, start the auto if the car key is lost, diagnose mechanical problems, or dispatch a tow-truck.

According to the report, during the course of an investigation the “FBI sought to use the microphone” to capture conversations between “two alleged senior members of organized crime.” A federal court in Nevada required the company give access to the FBI, and though through appeal the Ninth Circuit “disallowed the interception on other grounds,” it “left open the possibility of using in-car communication devices for surveillance provided the systems’ safety features are not disabled in the process.”

Even “Hello Barbie!” dolls now have the functionality to provide intelligence for companies. Mattel manufactured a doll that “interacts with children by recording their conversations with a microphone, processing it in the cloud, and sending verbal responses through a speaker on the doll.”

There’s more: “Devices like the Nest Cam record high resolution video with a wide-angle lens camera broadcast over the internet to account holders…. The Nest Cam can also exchange data and interact with other devices, such as Nest’s thermostats and smoke detectors, which themselves contain sensors and microphones.”

Stating what is both fact and a warning, the report reveals, “Law enforcement or intelligence agencies may start to seek orders compelling Samsung, Google, Mattel, Nest or vendors of other networked devices to push an update or flip a digital switch to intercept the ambient communications of a target. These are all real products now.”

 CONCLUSION

The billionaire owners of firms like Google claim they take “great care” to ensure the technology they develop “will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line.”

Clearly the opposite is true.

It is of utmost importance that freedom-loving people understand that many of the tools they are using to promote social change and organize resistance have a dual nature. Social networks and digital devices provide a means to reach a vast audience and to help organize progressive movements. However, they are also a major source of both political and economic power for billionaire class.

What’s more, and this is crucial: In these times when fascists have come out into the open, seek the highest office in the land and organize other reactionaries and militia groups, we must keep in mind that if they were to gain power, the internet and all related devices would provide an extremely sophisticated means of identifying and locating the opposition. It would also provide them with means to create and distribute propaganda that would have a far greater reach than anything ever imagined by Hitler and Goebbels.

All the more reason for progressives to resist, using tools of the internet, but more important — good old fashioned grass roots organizing.

copyright © 2016 J. P. Bone