Beware - Big Tech is watching you

28 May 2019

Who wants a know-all around the house all the time? Apparently, we do. According to Argos, one in 10 households in the UK has a smart speaker – more than the number of UK households with a pet rabbit, which should give us all paws for thought (sorry).

In fact, Argos says that general smart-home product sales have gone up by 161% in the past year – and they should know. The Internet of Things (IoT or smart technology) has been creeping into our lives for years. At least that’s the way it feels. Actually, it was just 2015 – barely four years ago – when the first Amazon Echo hit the market.

Smart products will only become more popular in the UK as the year moves on. We will soon be able to interact with the most surprising of items.

For a start, who hasn’t at some point wished that they could interact more fully with their toilet? Well, now you can because US toilet maker Kohler has shoved an Alexa into its new loo. Yes, you can now install the Numi 2.0 intelligent toilet in your home. It promises a ‘fully immersive experience’ and includes interactive lighting (whatever that is), built-in speakers and voice control, all for a mere $7,000.

It’s just typical, though, isn’t it? All this technology and there’s still the need for paperwork!

Before you rush out excitedly to buy one of these ‘must-haves’, pause for a moment and consider the fact that that smart toilet is doing more than simply obeying your commands. It can also record you. It could even play it back to you. Delightful.

Because that’s what these IoT products do. They’re like News of the World reporters sitting in the corner of your room, making detailed notes of your every spit and cough and reporting it to the Cloud. Even your little Roomba vacuum cleaning robot is mapping out your home.

Who hasn’t wished they could interract with a toilet?

These too-clever-by-half little sneaks come across as fun, handy and even money-saving but, long-term, they may cost us big time if we don’t get wise now. Our so-called smart technology is too smart for us right now. There are suspicions that these devices are snooping on us day and night. And the biggest search engine on the planet knows where we are much of the time, what we’re searching for and what we’re saying to people in emails.

We’re also giving away health data. Last year a stake in the ancestry and DNA company 23andMe was sold to GlaxoSmithKline for $300 million. Why? Because most of their customers who paid to find out if they had a bit of Eskimo in their background also let them keep all of their (incredibly valuable) health data.

Over eight years or so, the company amassed a treasure trove of data – entirely or free – which was valuable enough for a massive corporate name like Glaxo to scoop up. Did any of their former clients see any of that cash? You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?

Earlier this year Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff published a ground-breaking book called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (and, at 704 pages, it is literally ground-breaking – you could use it to break up clods of soil in the garden). It’s worth a read if you have the time (or just watch video interviews with her if you’re too busy gardening).

Professor Zuboff explains, in frightening detail, how much of our personal data Big Tech companies have already gathered for free, and in secret, and how it’s already affecting what we buy and do and can seriously affect our ability to get various insurances, loans and jobs later on.

So what should you do with your smart technology? Stamp on it. Drown it in the bath. Melt down the nasty little chip and when that’s done, stick the whole lot in the bin (providing you’re sure there’s none of your data on it). Don’t wear a health monitor, and find out if your email provider is reading your messages.

Or, if you’d like to hang on to these gadgets, get in touch with the companies that make them and demand payment for your data – particularly your health information. A few grand a year should cover it, with a written undertaking that your health and life insurance will not be denied based on data harvested from your smart tech.

Obviously, they will say no, but it should wipe the smile off their faces, just for a moment.

Jasmine Birtles gives talks on investing and technology.
Her latest speech is called ‘The Future of Technology: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’