11 Nov

How to Respect Privacy in the Age of IoT

You’ve entered someone’s smart home, but refuse to be listened to by their personal assistant? Can you ask your hosts to turn their Google Nest or Alexa off?

If you care about your privacy, you’ll find a way, because you don’t want to wind up like that couple whose conversation was recorded by an Amazon Echo and sent to one of their contacts. Or the German Amazon customer whose Alexa recordings, which contained intimate, “hair-standing on end” personal details, were sent to a stranger. Or Amazon workers tapping into conversations, listening and recording for quality control purposes. Or researchers discovering vulnerabilities that would allow for “skill-squatting” (or voice-squatting) attacks that can turn legitimate commands into malicious executables. Or the vulnerable Google Nest, smart coffee pot, or another unknown item that might be lurking in the background.

We wonder what things we might have said over the past 45 minutes, before we knew the recording device was stealthily listening. Did we mention anything sensitive or confidential? Anything that would violate privacy law if it were leaked? Anything that would help attackers write a good spear-phishing message or guess our passwords? Or did we just say something stupid and embarrassing?

What’s a grumpy, privacy-conscious person meant to do in these situations? Make angry demands, spiked with obscenities and snide comments about the foolishness of anyone who’d invite such spy equipment into their lives?

Etiquette would tell a privacy-conscious guest in a smart-as-a-whip home to also consider carefully what you’re asking of your host. The inconvenience of turning a microphone off of one device might be small, but entirely altering the operation of an entire building (particularly if the homeowner requires voice activation for accessibility purposes) is a far greater inconvenience.

“As the practical landscape changes, the nature of the request and how you make it is going to change as well,” states Daniel Post Senning, the grandson of Emily Post, writer of the first edition of Etiquette in Society in Business in Politics and at Home, and director of the Emily Post Institute.

Nevertheless, “It’s hard to make demands of your host, as a guest. But you can make a request, and you can adjust your behavior and your participation accordingly,” he suggested.

Another very practical piece of advice he gave is to get familiar with all the IoT and communications technology you use in the workplace, because using it well can protect your privacy. (Using it not-well might mean forgetting to hit “stop sharing my screen” before beginning an instant message conversation complaining about the people on the conference call.)

Of course that would be less of an issue if we followed one of the oldest etiquette rules that goes almost back to Emily’s time, Post Senning said: “the headline rule.” The idea was that before you wrote something in a letter, ask yourself if you’d be OK with it becoming a newspaper headline, because even if you trusted the person you were sending the letter to, could you trust everyone else who might obtain access to it?

“As the question about not just what we write but what we say and what we do becomes also potentially public and permanent, I think it raises some really interesting questions about what privacy is and how we continue to value it and show value for it in the way we behave and make choices,” Post Senning said.

The heart of all good etiquette is holding yourself accountable to standards of consideration, honesty, and kindness, he added. In that case, we all ought to practice it. Because if recording devices are going to capture our behavior no matter what we do, good etiquette is a behavior we wouldn’t mind caught.

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