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Privacy

How smart gadgets spy on you

Imagine if every single gadget in your life was “smart.” Your self-driving car could let your house know you’re on the way home so it can adjust the thermostat and kick on the lights.

Maybe your smartwatch knows from your vital signs you had a stressful day, so it has your car activate some soothing music that transfers seamlessly to your home stereo when you walk in the door. It could even tell your smart tub to draw a bath.

Your fridge could detect that you’re out of milk and order some online before you even wake up. A drone delivers the milk just in time for your morning bowl of cereal. Or it could deliver an entire fresh meal based on the diet plan you’ve put in your health app.

Your smart mattress notes that you didn’t sleep well, so it chooses a louder alarm and has the coffee maker step up the strength a bit. The possibilities are endless.

Controlling your home from a distance and getting gadgets to talk to each other sounds like science fiction, but it’s real and companies are working to make the scenarios I gave above a reality. This so-called “Internet of Things” could be the next big advance in human culture and lifestyle.

However, unless something changes soon, it’s also going to be the next big breach in your personal privacy. In fact, it could already be affecting you. Read on to see what I mean.

There’s a keyword in the “Internet of Things” that’s always troubling and that’s “internet.” To work together, gadgets have to connect to the internet and upload their data to the company that made them.

While this data is supposed to be anonymous, don’t think for a second that companies aren’t thinking about ways to sell your data or serve you ads to boost their revenue. Once your entire life is connected and online, some company somewhere will end up knowing you better than you know yourself.

It doesn’t help that every gadget out there has a unique privacy policy, and most of them aren’t very specific. We’ve seen that firsthand when the news broke that Samsung smart TVs were listening to their owners’ private conversations.

OK, they weren’t really, but they were passing along your voice commands to a third party for processing. That’s actually fairly standard; Apple does the same thing with Siri. However, Samsung didn’t really make clear what information it was passing on or why, and that led to panic.

Customers need to know who is getting their information and why so they can make an informed decision. Of course, there’s another privacy problem that’s even worse.

One recurring theme of connected gadgets so far is that the manufacturers haven’t thought enough about security. Not long ago, I talked about weak security in “smart” gadgets, including hackers taking over high-tech toilets, and nothing has really changed.

Every new gadget has weak points that hackers can use to get your information, from smart thermostats to car insurance and life insurance trackers. Recently, we found out that poor security in drug pumps could let a hacker take over and sabotage an entire hospital’s critical care equipment.

It’s bad enough when gadgets are working on their own and hackers have to tap into each one individually. However, when every gadget is connected through a central service, like Apple’s HealthKit or whatever Google, Microsoft, Honeywell and other companies are cooking up, a hacker will only need to break into one thing to see your entire life.

A burglar will know when you aren’t at home and probably what security system you have. Scammers will know if you’re having health problems, what you eat, what music you listen to and other things that could make it easy to trick you into giving up even more information in an email or on the phone.

A practical joker could mess with your lights, music, temperature, coffee, laundry or even your car. And, of course, because everything is tied together, an identity thief could really take over your entire life.

That just leaves the question of what you can do about it. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t a good one. At this stage, you have to carefully research any smart product and not buy the ones that don’t measure up to your security or privacy standards. That includes objects you might not normally think about being a threat, like a Wi-Fi connected doll.

Hopefully, as consumers demand better privacy controls and security standards, manufacturers will get the message that its customers care about privacy and security and start building gadgets accordingly.

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