Are you looking forward to the day when your sleeping baby’s diaper tells you it’s wet before the wee wakes Junior? Or are you haunted by the idea that an insurance company, retailer or hostile government could learn everything about you that your TV, appliances or even internal organs are able to divulge? Either way, that future is arriving, as cheap sensors connected to fast wireless networks and the internet invade our lives. Communicating without human intervention, these chatty devices make up what’s known as the internet of things. For consumers, it could mean homes that look after themselves and cars that take over the driving. For industries, the technology is creating automated “smart factories” and warehouses that can fulfill their own orders. But smart sensors also unleash a host of new problems, changing the very nature of privacy itself.
Wireless carriers and tech companies such as Samsung, Apple and Google are stepping up efforts to connect all kinds of devices — from light switches and smoke detectors to gas meters, door locks and “smart speaker” voice assistants such as Amazon’s Echo, also known as Alexa. They offer convenience along with efficiency and cost savings; the use of electronic monitoring, for instance, can let patients leave the hospital sooner or enable seniors to continue living at home. The proliferation is driven by advances in miniaturization and artificial intelligence, and will be fueled by the arrival of speedy 5G mobile networks. At the same time, the risks of web-linked devices are becoming better understood: In 2018, U.S. authorities issued a security alert to let consumers know the gizmos could be exploited by malicious actors, and studies have shown that devices from security cameras to cars aren’t hard to hack. Privacy concerns are coming into focus: Reports emerged in 2019 that Amazon workers had listened to recordings of Alexa customers. Many appliances are harvesting data that could prove valuable — for better or worse — to product designers, advertisers, governments and law enforcement.