Blog Post

Forget about the NSA for a minute: The internet of things could kill the little white lie

Security and privacy are both tough topics when it comes to the internet of things, as the FTC recently discovered in an all-day workshop that laid out the spectrum of challenges and potential harms inherent in connecting our devices. But for a populace that doesn’t really care about NSA surveillance the privacy threat from the internet of things isn’t Big Brother, it’s the death of the social lie.

Maybe you’re running late because you were watching the last few minutes of Scandal but you tell your husband there was traffic. Or you tell your kids that your husband ate the last bit of ice cream and the entire box of Oreos, when it was you. Maybe you tell your husband that you’re at home, when in reality you’re out doing holiday shopping.

Most of these lies aren’t harmful, they’re the types of fibs we tell to make people feel important or to ensure a nice surprise. Some of them are simply about maintaining a sense of dignity (A whole package of Oreos? Who does that?) But as we connect more devices and add sensors to more places these lies will become harder to preserve. The challenges will be threefold: we’re collecting data in more places like the cabinets in our homes; the data collection is passive as opposed to active sharing; and we don’t yet have clear rules about what is allowed with this data and what isn’t.

And the loss of those social lies — of the day-to-day privacy — that allows a trusted employee to call in sick when in reality she needs to go the doctor or take a break– is where the backlash over securing the internet of things will come from.

Foursquare, local search
Much like people had to learn that their actions on the internet were not only tracked by companies, but also that sharing your location on services like Twitter or FourSquare might result in you getting caught in a lie, as we add more ways to track our physical activities (not just location) that information will also find its way out. It may be limited to your immediate family, but given how little people understand about how data is shared, it might make its way to your social networks or your boss.

Where once the walls of your car or your home meant you were alone and your movements were unmarked, now they are digitized and shunted into an app. I can log into any number of apps to see activity in my home, not through a camera, but through motion sensors or the temperatures or whether my shades are up or down. Because I have a sensor on my liquor cabinet, I know when my husband makes a whisky when I’m not home.

He could have that same access to my activities in the home. And because these sensors are passively collecting data rather than me actively choosing to share it, it’s doubly problematic. I’m passively gathering information about home, which my family can see, but what about passive tracking of your presence in a store using Bluetooth beacons around the store. Many people might not be aware that the tracking is happening an all, and we have no idea how the retailer might be sharing that. What if they tweet on your behalf?

So while it’s super scary to know that the CIA can tell who I am based on my pedometer data (we all have a different set of habits and gait), I’m more worried about my pedometer data being shared back to my insurance firm, my doctor or even my boss. And frankly, the prospect of higher insurance charges for me is a problem, but the scariest is that suddenly it’s possible to see where I’ve been and how when I called in sick I really was moving about in a pretty hale and healthy manner.


Sensors in the fridge might show my daughter that I actually don’t always eat breakfast, even though I tell her it’s the most important meal of the day. From her perspective, I can see when her light is on past her bedtime thanks to a connected light switch or even what music she’s listening to on her Sonos. While some of these examples involve me inviting social media into the equation, by choosing the share data with friends, others are just a function of having connected devices on my home network that my family can see.

So while my colleague Mathew Ingram spent a decade monitoring his teenage daughters online, I have the opportunity to go beyond keystroke logging to understanding what she’s playing with, where she and her friends go in our home and how she drives the car. I’ll even know what she’s listening to.

Today my husband teases me about my Katy Perry obsession (Roar is a very catchy song), but will we giggle when he catches me in a lie about completing a workout while he took my daughter to the playground? These are all scenarios I think the smart home will enable, and I’m truly curious how consumers will react. Even the 52 percent that are nonplussed by the NSA’s spying.

9 Responses to “Forget about the NSA for a minute: The internet of things could kill the little white lie”

  1. Gail Gardner

    To each their own. Personally, there is no way I’m volunteering to be a rat in someone’s cage being monitored and manipulated technologically. We have a choice to NOT buy devices with sensors in them. We do not have to carry a smart phone or have appliances that monitor our actions. As the outcry against smart meters proves, some percentage of the population will find ways to maintain their freedom.

    I hope repair people realize there will be a demand for rebuilt appliances and vehicles that don’t have GPS trackers in them. If where you live mandates devices you don’t want, be prepared to move. If it comes to it, even those of us who live online today will unplug or find some geeks on a bbs who create an alternate Internet.

    Open data is NOT “absolutely necessary”. There is no such thing as privacy if the data exists anywhere. If all they wanted to do was sell us something that wouldn’t concern me, but that is not what these devices are intended for – they are to control us.

    I wonder if the authors of Brave New World and 1984 realized that the masses would stand in line to actually pay for the devices they foresaw in their books.

  2. anonymous

    Interesting article. Good insight into something I never thought about. Could open data mitigate the problems of moral hazard? In industries like insurance, this could lead to accurate pricing per customer, maintaining the same level of social welfare, without requiring the same input from each.

  3. Jackson Bond

    Amen Mike McFarlane! The Open Data is absolutely necessary, and goes back to the old saying: Information is Power. So give the people the free and easy access to their own information and the privacy controls needed, which includes the data from their own things around them. I have heard rumors (not yet verified, so I will name no names) that some home appliance manufacturers have been reading the data from their devices already, apparently for quality control purposes, but not making this clear to the consumer. Any insights here?

  4. Mike McFarlane

    You aren’t thinking big enough, or far enough ahead! The benefits to individuals, society, business and the environment of such massive data sets, especially if we pay attention and try to ensure they are Open Data, so far outweighs any of your concerns. Sure people have a right to privacy if they want. I was like that until a few months ago, I was a Facebook hater, until I started considering the benefits of less privacy and massive data to myself and society.

    As for the NSA? Well, get your information out there so everyone has access. They only have power when they have an edge. If everyone has the same information then the NSA, and the corrupt government system behind them, have much less power. You might want to keep your bank and stocks info to yourself though:-)

    @Eddie and @ Succesful Workplace Interesting references, I checked them out, thanks.

  5. Successful Workplace

    Ah, the end of the modern concept of privacy as we know it. As Alistair Croll and others have written, the idea that we can live inside our cars and homes with privacy is a relatively new idea. Humanity evolved in thin walled huts in small villages for far longer than in large, anonymous cities. Our expectation of privacy is perhaps in for a rude awakening in a world where everything is digital and can be proven or disproven pretty quickly…the end of the little while lie, as you say.

  6. Stacy, most regular GigaOm readers admire your hyper enthusiasm for the Internet of Things, but you should have a read of Jean Louise-Gassé’s reality check, his most recent post on his Monday Note blog.

  7. Got to say that it’s very shallow to be more worried about this than about a gov having too much power.
    Anyway, you raise a problem but don’t even consider that there are easy solutions. Just because some device has the data it doesn’t mean anyone else has to have access to it.

  8. well, yes, it could, but it is also great potential for family terapy sessions … grandma’s fotos appearing up on the new video wall of husband no. 4, when she connected her new iFone …. thankfully, grandma is about as square box as they come, but if those had been anyone else’s library in the room, YIKES! Now, that would have been fun — but most would only see the comedy in about 15-20 years!