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.