Perilous Tech

Because we don't need Skynet for tech to harm us.

What do you think of when you think of companies like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon? Most likely, you think of logistics, packages, and maybe the occasional present you don’t remember ordering because of… reasons. You don’t think of mass surveillance, but that might change in the not-so-distant future.


New data sources are on the horizon that further threaten our privacy. Awareness of these issues is critical if we hope to prepare for this in the future. These data sources are becoming more available and accessible due to advances in expanded storage, processing, and edge computing.

The Landscape

It shouldn’t surprise you, but you don’t own the airspace above your house. This lack of ownership is how you can see an image of your home on Google Earth when nobody asked your permission. This fact usually isn’t a privacy concern due to the relative lack of regularity in updates to public satellite images, so there is a massive amount of information obscuring you as an individual. The average person isn’t important enough for a nation-state or tech company to task a satellite for more current images. Once again, what saves us in many of these cases is the concept of obscurity. Our information blends into the background along with countless others.


What got me thinking about this issue was the Nashville bomber and the associated photos of his RV from Google Street View and Google Earth. This discovery set off a firestorm of “look at the line on his RV dude, it’s not him” arguments, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that it was pretty easy for anyone that requested the address to use this technology to identify the very RV in his driveway. Now, let’s expand this out a bit further and closer to real-time.

The Problem

We have a few problems with this new perspective.

  • Privacy invasion due to tracking and advertisements
  • Near real-time surveillance of your home and property
  • Data sales and further misuse

Companies have gotten very good at turning their excess data into profit. If you think this untapped potential will go to waste, then you are sadly mistaken. Every company is a tech and data company now, looking to squeeze every bit of value on every bit of data at their disposal.

Tracking and Advertisements

  • Looks like you could use an umbrella for your picnic table. Would you like to add one to your cart?
  • The awning on the side of your house looks tattered. Here are three options for you.

If you think this seems far-fetched, consider the fact that Amazon is one of these companies exploring delivery drones along with UPS and FedEx. Amazon knows where you live and has extensive storage and processing capabilities. Regardless, there’s a good chance that you’ve received a package from all three of these providers and your name is attached to your address.


Think about this type of advertising. How would you opt-out? You may opt-out of seeing the result, but the data is still captured and processed. There are no Adblock shingles for the roof of your house.

There are no Adblock shingles for the roof of your house.

Near Real-time Surveillance

Think of all the near real-time surveillance data available for learning the habits of particular houses and neighborhoods. Sure, delivery trucks are in your neighborhood today, but even if they had an array of cameras and sensors, they are typically only in your community, maybe once per day. Multiple drones might be flying over your property throughout the day, providing a far more comprehensive perspective with many more sensors and precise data.


To be clear, this isn’t about a human at one of these companies viewing images of your property. This human analysis would be a massive undertaking, but analysis at scale isn’t far-fetched. With all of this valuable data, you have to wonder how this will impact investigations and cooperation with law enforcement in the future.

Data Sales

Data is valuable, so what is the value of this data to other organizations? It may not be these companies making direct use of the data, but selling the data and insights gained. Your data is bought and sold on a regular basis without your knowledge.


Speaking of law enforcement, it wouldn’t be that difficult with the number of drones in the sky for law enforcement or a government agency to camouflage themselves into the busy skies, or what if they purchased the data directly?

The point is, there are many scenarios that may play out that we haven’t thought of yet.

What Do We Do?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to combat this threat when it appears. We can’t mow an opt-out symbol into our yard. We have to hope that the legal system creates controls that prohibit this type of behavior and imposes limits on this data. It’s not like we can stop using these services or that there are enough of them that you can make an effective boycott. Even though there isn’t much we can do, it’s worth remembering that hard lessons are often learned in the initial implementation of a technology. For example, the Google Street View incidents with people passed out drunk.

Conclusion

This type of surveillance is still on the horizon, but with today’s resources, it’s becoming more viable. With new data sources and advancements in collection and processing, we’ll find our privacy violated in more unexpected ways. The drone scenario is only one of many. We need to threat model these new technologies beyond their primary functions and consider their abuse. It’s up to us to decide what kind of future we want to live in and be proactive in identifying potential harms.

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