The Rise of the Data Vampires: A Tale of Two Georges

The Internet of Things could deliver us the world of George Jetson with helpful robotic assistants attending to, even anticipating, our every need. Our Internet-connected smart homes would learn our patterns, hear what we say, capture images of what we do and even monitor our vital signs through “wearable” to make our lives simpler, safer and maybe less stressful. Or maybe, just maybe, we are being delivered into the 1984 world depicted by the other George—George Orwell.

I mentioned in my last post that I discovered how this new generation of Internet-enabled, cloud-based IoT devices actually work and their undisclosed purpose to feed corporate Big Data engines. That discovery was behind my epiphany that many of these smart home devices were actually “data vampires”.  What else would you call something that silently sucks personal information from consumers’ homes while posing as benign home automation devices? When I shared this discovery with my friend Randy Schultz one Sunday afternoon in May, he had two responses. “Holy shit! Really?” followed by “We need to write a book about this!”.

And so it began two short months ago. Within days, we had pulled together an outline for a book and, in the ensuing weeks, Randy worked on the book proposal while I wrote an introduction and the first two chapters. The Rise of the Data Vampires: How Google, Facebook, Big Data and the Internet of Things Are Stealing Your Privacy (http://datavampires.com) is ready to be pitched to agents and, ultimately, publishers. This is my first involvement in writing a book. It’s hard work but we feel a commitment to raise the alarm about the promises and perils of the Internet of Things. Data Vampires are not fiction nor do Randy and I wear tin foil hats to protect ourselves from Internet eavesdropping. They are very real and they are heading to our homes in vast hordes. Some Data Vampires have already arrived disguised as Nest (Google) thermostats and Amazon Echo home automation controllers.

The work of writing this book and educating consumers via the Open IoT Foundation about the choices they have is a challenging but important undertaking. Our objective is not to suggest people live off grid in a cave but to be aware of what is entering their homes and to make smart choices. Cohabitation with Data Vampires may be a good choice if the benefits satisfy consumer needs and both parties agree that it is a fair, symmetrical transaction. A bad choice is when consumers have no idea that they opened their doors to Data Vampires.

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We Need an Open Internet of Things

Serendipity seems to be the driving force in my ventures and it happened again. After taking off most of 2014 to build a new house in Santa Fe, I was ready to get back to work. Not that building a house where I was the general contractor and worked as a carpenter for much of the time isn’t work. It’s hard work, but I wanted to find another small venture on which to focus my energies and time. I had thought I found a great idea for a specialized home automation system I wanted to build to save water and energy. It would be a sustainable business that combined my interest in home building and technology.

I made an interesting discovery as I was researching Internet of Things (IoT) technology I might be able to use in my project. What I found was a serious threat to consumer privacy and control of their home environments. Now I consider myself a good technologist and a realist about the tradeoffs using modern technology but hardly a privacy maven. The benefits of online technology often come with attached non-monetary costs. I’m usually willing to accept some loss of privacy and being spammed with targeted ads (the usual payment) in exchange for free email, excellent search engine results and great maps. A balanced transaction if not ideal. Quid pro quo.

My discovery alarmed me more than I expected but with good reason. In my assessment, the Internet of Things is rapidly evolving as a vast array of smart home devices that are silently sucking up personal information for use in private Big Data systems owned by Google, Facebook and Amazon. Nothing new you might say. These folks are already “hoovering” up my data, right? True, but this time, they are using slick marketing to sell consumers on the wonders of a George Jetson future their devices bring to consumers homes. They simply neglect to tell consumers that the real purpose of these smart IoT devices is primarily to learn more about them so they can develop even more targeted advertising. A balanced transaction? Hardly.

This use of stealthy “trojan horses” masking an Internet pipeline feeding corporate Big Data systems borders on dishonesty and certainly lacks transparency. This begins the story of how we decided to create the Open IoT Foundation as a nonprofit venue to give voice to these concerns. We tell the back story on the website and also lay out what we think represents a fair consumer Bill of Rights for an open Internet of Things.

My new mission is not my usual product-centric startup by any means but a really important subject. Creating consumer awareness of what is happening with the Internet of Things won’t be easy. The Open IoT Foundation is a starting point and the book I am co-authoring with a friend on this topic (more on the book in the next post) will provide another platform.