Categories: News Commentary

What You Need To Know About Tech And Privacy

It’s like watching Back to the Future, except that the future is here. Case in point: Nike even came out with Marty McFly’s self-tying shoes in 2016. Technology has exploded in growth in the last few decades, leaping from mobile phones to smartwatches.

Nike’s Back to the Future 2 tribute were real-life self-tying shoes released in 2016 called the Nike MAG. Photo: Nike

With each new year, the tech products showcased at the Consumer Technology Association (CES) get more fantastical, sending technophiles into a tizzy. Folding touch screens, headless cat robots and even a loo roll butler playing fetch were all out on display in 2020 – what more could you want from the future.

All is not glorious in the Silicon kingdom because even if the imminent robot uprising is still far off from being a reality, not all glittering tech things are gold. Now more than ever is the time to pull that tin foil hat on tighter.

Robots are here and now, they were very much present at the 2020 CES. Photo: Alex Wong/AFP

Statistics website shows that as of January 2020, 3.5 billion people in the world own a smartphone – that’s 45.12% of the population connected through the high-powered Internet-laden device. These connections open up a world of possibilities, including sneaky scoundrels worming their way into our private lives.

The Phone

They track our health, log our daily habits and even function as wallets. Smartphones have become our life force and in doing so they can lead to our downfall. Batteries blowing up, spontaneous combustion and possible cancer from radiation are all real dangers that most people worry about. What they don’t always worry about is someone hacking their phones.

The usual targets for attacks are celebrities, royalty and big-wig bajillionaires. Wiretaps are still being used today and Najib Razak, former prime minister of Malaysia, was publicly heard getting a pep talk from his wife. People are resorting to newer forms of getting into confidential spaces.

Learn from Jeff Bezos and don’t open messages from MBS. Photo: AFP

Just this year, Jeff Bezos’ phone was hacked when he received a WhatsApp GIF with dubious encryption from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.  It is also alleged that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might have also been compromised because he had WhatsApp conversations with the Prince previously. Save yourself some trouble, and do not open any WhatsApp messages from MBS.

Sure, we are not the Jeff Bezos and Boris Johnsons of the world, but phone security is no joke. It’s now fairly normal for ads related to private conversations to pop up after the fact.

The big corporations were listening in this time. Photo: Unsplash

The latest online conspiracy goes along the lines of, “Are they listening?” except its not governments that are under suspicion (although in some places Big Brother is most definitely listening) but the companies that we entrust our personal data to.

Facebook and Instagram are prime suspects. They are adamant that they aren’t listening and that their advertising algorithms are tip-top. Many people remain doubtful of their assurances, especially after Cambridge Analytica.

The AI

The reality of it all is while it’s not so much that your phone is listening to you, the AI in it definitely is. They tell us not to worry, that the little stranger in our house sitting inconspicuously by the window, next to your bed or on the mantle could do no harm.

Except this time it wasn’t the AI that did wrong, but the companies sitting behind the speakers. The line “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, is more relevant than ever before.

Even if they were doing it to better the AI, letting people know that they were listening in would have resulted in less scandal. Photo: AFP

Google, Amazon and Apple were all caught red-handed, with departments in their company or contractors dedicated to listening to and transcribing conversations with the use of AI. Though they had good intentions – allegedly to perfect the respective AI’s speech recognition – they were not very forthcoming about the ongoing project.

Make sure to check the fine print on all your devices for your own safety. Photo: Unsplash

It would have been nice to know that a real person might be listening when you ask Alexa if the colour of your stool was off or if avocados and artichokes are the same. Double down on all the privacy settings for your AI devices, check what recordings you can delete and what you can turn off; it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

The Household

It’s not only the phones that are integrating into our lives but our everyday things. This leads us to the Internet of Things, which refers to the fact that there are things, aside from your computer and phone, that have Internet capabilities.

Which is how your phone can tell that smart coffee maker to make an Americano for you in the morning, while your favourite station drifts through the house, the Roomba starts its routine, and the lawnmower cuts the fresh grass.

Kohler not only has a smart toilet but now has announced the Moxie showerhead that can be equipped with a wireless, waterproof, smart speaker. Photo: Kohler

But to give you all these nice things, products need to be connected to the Internet or Bluetooth, which opens up a realm of possibilities for those who know how to hack devices. All of these things that have a connection also leave openings for someone to control your smart lights, smart thermostat (which terrorised a couple in the United States for 48 hours), smart fridge and so on.

The biggest problem here is that if they get into one device, they can get into your entire system (including all your personal files); these objects no longer operate as isolated islands. Bearing in mind that the Internet of Things also applies to cars, heart monitors and even sex toys, imagine the possibilities!

Top Tip For The Future

Constant vigilance is required because the future is inevitable. Unless living in a bunker surrounded by a Faraday cage away from civilisation appeals to you. Just this year ‘zoombombing’, where someone gatecrashes a private conference call on the popular app Zoom, became all the rage. The COVID-19 pandemic brought an onslaught of users to the app and what followed were the opportunists, hackers, tech invaders and advertising hounds.

Zoom bombers even affected school and university zoom calls. Photo: AFP

The app was rife with scandal in April of this year with security gaps, accusations of unwarranted information sharing and darknet hacks, it’s the new Facebook in terms of technology scandals. Having the tech means having a responsibility to secure it, to do that two-step verification, get that external security box and always listen to both sides. There is some truth to the tin foil hat wearer’s cries.


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