Luxury surveillance and why it should concern you
When we think of the word surveillance, we tend to think of something that’s imposed on us rather than something we volunteer for willingly. However, with the rise of connected home devices, and fitness and health trackers, more and more people are offering ultra-personal data to tech companies in exchange for perceived benefits.
Fitness trackers like Amazon Halo and Fitbit monitor everything from your sleep cycle to steps you’ve taken so that you can improve your everyday behavior. Home surveillance systems like Ring and Eufy help make people feel safer in their homes and neighborhoods, and digital assistants like Alexa and Siri can help you automate and streamline your everyday life, all the while providing private companies and unknown third parties with biometric information and intimate details.
Digital studies scholar David Golumbia and journalist Chris Gilliard have coined the term “luxury surveillance” to describe this form of voluntary surveillance. They compare the plight of those who live in a regime of forced surveillance that they cannot escape to willing consumers who tend to see their tools as empowering rather than creepy.
However, there is a high potential to abuse the data collected by such tools. In fact, it’s already happening.
Luxury surveillance at work and at home
A report from The Washington Post explores how some workplaces have adopted employee fitness trackers to monitor employee health data. The goal of this is to employee fitness and improve insurance healthcare costs, which has proven to have mixed success in research.
While employees usually sign-up voluntarily for these programs, they’re generally incentivized by cash prizes or insurance reimbursements for co-payments and deductibles. Often the data collected by these trackers aren’t covered by federal rules that prevent the disclosure of health records. Furthermore, it can be combined with other data like credit card scores to paint an even more insightful picture of the employee. It could also be used to enforce competitiveness based not on performance but on health.
Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Washington Post:
“The more that employers know about their employees’ lives, especially outside the workplace, off-duty hours, the more potential control or effects they have on their lives in the first place. It’s quite possible there will be effects on whether you are retained, promoted, demoted — who is first to be laid off.’’
When it comes to home surveillance, Amazon has provided law enforcement with Ring footage without the user’s permission on multiple occasions. Law enforcement has also been known to ask users directly for footage to identify protestors. The American Civil Liberties Union has described Amazon’s Sidewalk — a shared network that connects Amazon’s smart home devices with their servers — as a “panopticon-style surveillance system” and “a nightmare for civil rights and civil liberties.”
Smart home devices have also been used as a tool for domestic tech abuse. A report from The New York Times describes how abusers can use smart home devices to intimidate and confuse victims, even after they’ve left the home. This can range from monitoring and remotely controlling blinds, doors, speakers, thermostats, lights, and cameras. For example, suddenly blaring music at odd times of the day or turning the heating sky high.
What you can do
Awareness is key to protecting your privacy when using smart devices. For those in vulnerable domestic situations, Woman’s Trust recommends getting rid of any devices you don’t need. If you’re concerned about unwanted data collection, research a device’s privacy policies before committing and check what experts say. What exactly will it be tracking, and what does the manufacturer do with it? Is there a possibility of opting out?
Fortunately, there has been some progress in formalizing smart home device security standards. The EU has proposed a Cyber Resilience Act that will rebalance responsibility towards manufacturers to ensure a secure product for consumers. This includes rules on market surveillance and enforcement. Furthermore, the Connectivity Standards Alliance recently announced it would launch a Data Privacy Working Group to standardize smart device manufacturers’ data collection policies across the industry.