Privacy: Personal Data Dissection in an IoT World

As a kid, I remember visiting the museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and seeing the human bodies on display that had been filleted into thin strips to show the inner workings. My wonderment of the complex inner workings was tempered by a curiosity about the donors; did they know how exposed they’d be? We’re in an age of insidious data collection that is carving us up digitally into transparent slices much like that museum cadaver. It started by tracking where you go and what you do on your computer in the virtual world, then that was augmented with real-world data from smartphones. Soon we’ll remember these as the “good old days”; a time when agents doing the reporting where known; all one had to do was turn those devices off.

Today our homes are filled with smart devices that are on 24×7 and can also act as reporting agents. Sound paranoid? It’s not. It’s a legitimate concern because the data has value. Just looking at smart TV’s, Vizio implemented a system in their products that sampled screen pixels on a second-by-second basis. They could determine what was being viewed by running the samples against a large content database. They knew if people were watching the local news, fast-forwarding through commercials with their DVR, or watching a rented DVD. Federal Trade Commission and the State of New Jersey sued Vizio, which was forced to pay millions because of this practice.

The main point of the smart TV example is that Vizio was selling the viewing data, along with the customer’s gender, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and household value. The end consumer only has two options; 1) disconnect the TV from the network (and lose features and access to firmware updates), or 2) find the way to opt-out of the program (and TRUST that the spying stops).

To quote Kate Cox at the Consumerist, “There is a new truism for our era: If something can connect to the internet, it collects data.” The more data a device can collect the greater the potential that data has value. Think of all the devices in the wave of new smart-home IoT gadgets, especially the ones with built in microphones and cameras.

If there’s a villain in this piece it’s the data brokers. Experian and Acxiom are the largest, but if you search you’ll find there are a lot of them. It’s YOUR responsibility to find them and opt-out of each program, (then trust it happens). The argument is that these companies are providing a service; you’re not being targeted by companies trying to sell you things that have no relevance to you. If it only stopped there; but it doesn’t.

The data brokers have amassed a mountain of amalgamated personal data, and the analytics that render the masses into one group or another are proprietary. So, what’s the big deal?  It’s the lack of transparency in what’s being collected and how, who is buying it, and how it’s being used. There are no checks and balances on the accuracy of the data or the validity of the analytics. Translating this to real life, the impact on people can sting. Companies use these services as tools to decide who’s eligible for what offerings and who gets excluded, who gets the deal and who must pay more, and who gets considered for the job and who’s excluded from consideration.


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