By Andrew Langer, President, Institute for Liberty & TES Contributor
At its core, the very concept of an “internet of things” is a transformative one. The idea that interconnected devices put a nearly-infinite array of goods and services directly into the hands of individual consumers is empowering—and that power is a heady one. With a touch of a button on a smart phone, we can instantly communicate, can order food or transportation, can keep track of what our kids are watching, even what’s in our refrigerators or pantries.
And we can see what is going on both inside our homes and outside with an array of devices that, even five years ago, would have cost a fortune to install and maintain.
But, like all manner of new technologies, there is both promise and peril… as consumers are finding out with alarming frequency.
We’ve all seen the ads for these “smart” security technologies—systems that can alert you across the world when your doorbell has been rung, provide you with video of who is approaching, even allow you to talk to strangers and give off the appearance that you’re at home (even if you’re sitting at your desk at work, far away from your front porch), can allow you to see what’s going on both within and without your home from anyplace at any time.
The problem, of course, is that if you can, so can someone else—whether you want them to or not.
Stories continue to rocket around the internet about the potential for the prior owners of certain web-based systems to retain the ability to access those systems if they decide to sell them to someone else “downstream”. Worse, there is a growing subgenre of pornography in which hackers share stolen video from such systems.
But there are also disturbing civil libertarian implications as well. Already, there are deep and abiding concerns about the data being collected by both smartphone and “smart speaker” systems that are constantly on and listening. Add the collection of video to this, and we are, literally, talking about areas of private life that are constantly being watched. These video files are collected and stored somewhere, where they could be hacked or duplicated or even watched by anyone with a lack of interest in either professional or personal ethics.
The implications to civil liberties go further than this when you add a law enforcement surveillance component to the mix. We are already seeing concerning relationships between the companies touting these systems, the law enforcement community, and citizenry looking to join the latest trends in that “internet of things” and expand their home security systems in the process.
In Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Police Force has created both a rebate program and a voucher program to promote the purchase of these systems. Other jurisdictions have actually purchased these products, and offer them free-of-charge or at a substantially reduced rate for their citizenry.
Setting aside, in the latter instance, the thorny problem of cronyism and governments picking preferential technologies in order to provide those technologies, the overall concern from a civil liberties perspective is one of data collection and mandated data access. Some agencies are putting mandates on these giveaways and rebates, declaring that receipt of these goods (or receiving them at a reduced costs) requires total access to data, regardless of what the 4th and 5th Amendments prohibit.
Governments are doing this in order to make their law enforcement jobs easier—and all of us are in favor of that. But at the same time, as citizens with guaranteed rights we cannot and should not give up those rights (either fully or in part) in exchange for some free security technology.
Because nothing is free. As the saying goes, on the internet, if a good or service is free, it means you’re the product. And there is an astounding new paradigm at work throughout the world today—that a liberty you’d fight tooth and nail to keep (should someone try to take it from you by force) is tossed away like trash not only when someone offers you a good or service—for free, subsidized, or even when you pay for it!
American voters would be appalled if the government tried mandating that everyone submit a DNA sample to a database… But tell someone they can have their DNA tested for ancestry or medical information, and they’ll pay all sorts of money to submit their DNA to someone… who now has an enormously valuable database of DNA information and got paid to gather it!
In the instance of the home security systems, people are paying prodigious sums of money (collectively) to be able to watch their homes from afar. Some people are having that desire satisfied by government in the form of subsidies or rebates or giveaways.
Sure, they get that sense of relief. But government agencies and detached corporate interests get access to massive amounts of individual data.
We do not know if the trade-off is worth it. But if past history is any teacher, the lesson is, we have to proceed with caution and consider whether or not we’re giving away too much of our privacy.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty. Starting this Fall, he will be teaching at the College of William & Mary.