Big Data and Big Brother: New Tech to Be Aware Of

Cloud storage options, lighting-fast data processing and advanced analytics platforms are some of the technologies organizations rely on regularly to glean statistics about their stakeholders.

On the consumer side of things, people have quickly embraced smart speakers, apps and wearable gadgets. They mainly do so because of a desire for convenience. However, some critics wonder if people give up their privacy as they keep buying the most advanced gadgets. In that case, is the government tracking the things people do and say? Worrisome findings indicate it’s possible. If it’s not already happening, it could soon. The government could track citizens with the help of numerous high-tech items.

1. Digital License Plates

California is the first state involved in a pilot program to investigate the potential uses of digital license plates. The manufacturer says people can register their vehicles or renew plates without paperwork, making things easier for motor vehicle owners. The plates may also have a built-in feature that allows paying tolls without physical money, similar to the windshield tags already in use. However, there are concerns about the potential drawbacks. For example, the plates might alert police when people drive above the speed limit. Also, if a person receives government assistance due to a disability, what if organizations track the vehicle to determine where that individual goes to spend money after receiving a check?

2. Smart Speakers

One of the often-mentioned benefits of today’s smart speakers and their virtual helpers — such as Alexa, Siri and the Google Assistant — is that those gadgets almost instantly respond to commands. To do that, though, the speakers listen continually and supposedly only take action in response to a wake word. Those gadgets then send data back to their parent companies. Users can access that stored information and delete it if desired. However, the devices are not necessarily as secure as they might seem. Analysts bring up how government officials could potentially use smart speakers for secret wiretapping or other invasions of privacy.

There was even a recent case where an Amazon Echo speaker recorded a household conversation and sent it to someone in the device owner’s contact list. Amazon’s engineers were immediately responsive and a statement from the company explained that Alexa must have mistakenly heard the wake word in the background chatter, then proceeded to misunderstand several other parts of the conversation as commands.

3. Fitness Trackers

Many people who want to get in better shape find that wearable fitness trackers help them get closer to their goals. These gadgets have motion detectors that can tell when people are active or sedentary if their heart rates are outside of a target range or even recognize the kind of activities they are doing. These wearables typically have geolocation technology that helps determine how far people travel when on running routes, for example. It’s not hard to envision how that same capability could inform the government of people’s movements.

It’s something that undoubtedly happens for federal employees if they work in places that have wellness programs that use fitness trackers. Even if managers say they only look at metrics that show how often people exercise, they could also potentially see where those individuals are at any given time.

Such location tracking already revealed government secrets when fitness trackers with a heat-tracking component showed the locations of soldiers who were using the devices at government compounds that weren’t publicly known. The government could potentially use that information when making decisions about citizens’ disability benefits, for example, and request that an applicant provide fitness tracking information.

If a person has an ailment that makes them unable to maintain gainful employment but does not prevent them from at least occasional exercise, could the government interpret the information in ways that make them decide the person is not disabled enough to qualify for assistance?

4. Social Apps

People post pictures of the foods they eat, check into locations in their communities to tell friends about their whereabouts, brag about where they’re going on vacation and more — all with the help of social apps.

The CIA confirmed its employees could hack into smartphones as well as other gadgets, such as TVs. It also doesn’t help that people often blindly agree to terms and conditions without reading the specifics. That means the terms and service for an app could potentially say, “(Company name) has the right to release your information to any government agency upon request” or something similarly vague. Most people would never know what they agreed to by clicking the “I accept” button to use the app.

Awareness Is Essential

The crucial thing for people to remember is that today’s technology has built-in features that compromise privacy and could give users’ details to the government without their knowledge. With that in mind, one of the most effective things to do is turn off all data-sharing components that aren’t essential for a device’s functionality. Beyond that, reading all agreements carefully before consenting to them helps, too.

About the Author

Contributed by: Kayla Matthews, a technology writer and blogger covering big data topics for websites like Productivity Bytes, CloudTweaks, SandHill and VMblog.