As we approach – or pass – the dates of some of the dystopian futures predicted in the science fiction I read as a child, I’m looking around my home wondering if any of it came true. Are robots replacing humans? Are we living on spaceships? Do we have flying cars and replicants? Mostly, the answer is no. But there is one fantasy future that gives me pause: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil predicts a world where bureaucracies know everything about us and make life-altering decisions based on that data. In this fever-dream film, the bureaucracies make terrible mistakes and citizens are helpless to correct them. I frown at my smart TV, Amazon Echo, Google Assistant, and Siri and think, “Well, that’s pretty close to reality, right now.”
“I’m not talking about robots replacing humans,” agrees Rob Shavell, CEO of online privacy company Abine. “I’m talking about decisions being made about us without us knowing by an artificial intelligence.”
Yep, that sounds like Brazil. But I know what you’re thinking. How did I get from smart TVs to a disembodied intelligence deciding our future?
This concept is often rolled into the single word, “Privacy” and people are more concerned about it now than they’ve ever been. People worry most about hackers and thieves misusing our private information or governments spying on us. But the massive quantities of data being gathered by the internet of things devices in our homes — as well as by our phones and computers — and fed to tech companies is a very real danger.
The TV is listening
We have smart TVs that listen constantly for us to ask for a movie or music. Google Home and Amazon Echo devices are always vigilant in case we want them to turn on our lights or brew the coffee. And many of us have security cameras trained on our living spaces and video doorbells that watch the front of our homes. For the most part, this is all a massive convenience, and we love it. (I know I do!)
But what if the tech companies were able to gather all that information together — everything we say at home, video of what happens inside and outside our homes, emails, text messages, the location data gathered by our phones, and our online musing — and what if it wasn’t hackers or governments that was planning to use that data but insurance companies, lenders, landlords, and the people who make decisions about what we can and cannot have and do. See? It’s just like Brazil.
“This is going to be much more relevant in the next five years,” says Shavell. “Decisions will be made about us by an AI engine at some company that’s evaluating huge amounts of data. Those decisions will affect our daily lives without us ever knowing why they were made.”
But we aren’t helpless against this dystopian future. In fact, there are quite a few things we can do to slow and even prevent it.
Five easy steps to prevent the dystopia
Here are five easy things you can do to protect your privacy from hackers, governments, and — especially — big tech companies and data brokers.
Opt out of Sidewalk
“The big tech companies are trying to turn the simple video devices we use for home security into a large mesh network that consumers pay for,” warns Shavell. He is referring to the low-power network recently announced by Amazon — Sidewalk — and similar efforts. “Your camera is helpful,” he says. “It’s keeping you secure and informed about what’s happening at your home. But when that camera becomes part of a network of cameras and the network’s owner is a big tech company that knows everything else about you, it crosses the Rubicon.”
When you consider that artificial bits of intelligence are capable of quickly pouring over vast amounts of data — including visual data — looking for people and patterns and that data brokers buy that data and sell it to other companies, says Shavell, “you start to you start to give up an insane amount of data that these companies can easily parse.”
If this sounds bad to you, keep voting for privacy protections and opt-out of Amazon Sidewalk.
From your phone, open the Alexa app.
- Tap More in the bottom right corner.
- Tap Settings.
- Tap Account Settings.
- Tap Amazon Sidewalk.
- Tap the slider next to Enabled.
- That will change it to Disabled.
Protect your IoT devices from hackers
Most smart home and internet of things (IoT) devices are pretty safe, says Shavell. “These devices are made and manufactured by the world’s biggest leading tech companies and, from a hardware security perspective, your risks are pretty low in terms of hackers or governments sneaking in.”
That is, if you change the default passwords before you use them. “Do not use the default password that is shipped with your device as the login and password,” warns Shavell. “And use a password manager, please, even for your IoT devices.”
Don’t give it all to one company
“When you buy an IoT device for your home — for entertainment, security, or home control — get it from the vendor that you don’t use for everything else,” recommends Shavell. That way, one company doesn’t have the whole picture, including emails, texts, and home security footage. “If all your stuff is Apple and you’ve got everything on iCloud and you’re always using your iPhone, get a Google or an Amazon IoT device,” he recommends.
Do not share
When you set up a new computer, phone, or piece of software, it will often ask if it can share your data back to the company that made it for testing, product improvement, and quality assurance. Say no. If you already said yes, go into your phone or computer’s settings and turn off that permission.
Get your data away from data brokers
Data brokers are outfits that buy and sell data that gets collected about people. You can request that they remove you from their data sets, though. And it works. Shavell’s company sells a product – DeleteMe – that does this, though it costs $129 a year. But you can also do it yourself. DeleteMe publishes a do-it-yourself guide that walks you through finding the data brokers and requesting that they remove your data from their files. “We can’t wipe everything of the internet,” says Shavell. “But you can clean up your digital footprint.”