Is your ‘smart’ fridge spoil­ing your se­crets?


LON­DON — Track your sleep with a bracelet.

Turn up the heat from the drive­way. Let a mon­i­tor sing to your baby. Ad­vances in the so-called in­ter­net of things have put amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy in the hands of many Cana­dian, but what hap­pens when those trendy tech prod­ucts give away your se­crets?

A West­ern Univer­sity pro­fes­sor is tar­get­ing those tools — and the loose pri­vacy rules that may fail to pro­tect con­sumers — in a new re­port.

“There’s a gen­eral prob­lem with se­cu­rity when­ever you have a de­vice that’s part of a net­work, be­cause that then be­comes an en­try into your home,” Sam Trosow said.

Sud­denly, or­di­nary ob­jects like re­frig­er­a­tors are con­nected to the in­ter­net and col­lect­ing data.

And most peo­ple us­ing those de­vices are bliss­fully un­aware of what they’re giv­ing away.

“There are re­ports about self­driv­ing cars be­ing hacked, about peo­ple fig­ur­ing out how to get into some­one’s home through garage door openers, or un­der­stand peo­ple’s pat­terns by look­ing at their au­to­matic light switches,” Trosow said.

An in­ter­na­tional study by data pro­tec­tors, in­clud­ing the In­for­ma­tion and Pri­vacy Com­mis­sioner of On­tario, showed six in 10 “in­ter­net of things” de­vices don’t prop­erly tell cus­tomers how their data is be­ing used.

Trosow stud­ied a long list of companies and prod­ucts — from the Fitbit to Tesla, to GE ap­pli­ances — to see how they lined up with Cana­dian pri­vacy law.

“Some of the rules that are in ef­fect need to be up­dated to re­flect the ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy,” Trosow said.

He wants to see more clar­ity for users — so they know what’s going on with their in­for­ma­tion — and a tight­en­ing of the reg­u­la­tions.

Per­sonal in­for­ma­tion can’t be given to a third party, but data col­lec­tors get around that by tak­ing out the iden­ti­fy­ing de­tails. It’s called “de-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

The prob­lem, Tr os ow warns, is that to­day’s al­go­rithms are so so­phis­ti­cated the anony­mous data doesn’t al­ways stay anony­mous.

Those third par­ties can “re-iden­tify” sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion.

Pri­vacy laws in Canada are stricter than those in the United States, Trosow said, but many Amer­i­can prod­ucts go by the rules south of the bor­der. But while that’s found in the fine print, most con­sumers aren’t read­ing those de­tails.

“By us­ing more and more of these de­vices, we are cre­at­ing more and more po­ten­tial prob­lems, es­pe­cially if the pub­lic is not aware of the is­sue of pri­vacy,” said Cather­ine Rosen­berg, a Univer­sity of Water­loo en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor and Canada Re­search Chair in the Fu­ture In­ter­net.

“Most of the ap­pli­ca­tions don’t work if you don’t give them ac­cess to your data,” Rosen­berg said. “This is very, very dis­turb­ing to me. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to give it, by de­fault, to Ap­ple or Fitbit. That, I think, is very ir­ri­tat­ing.”

The prob­lem, Rosen­berg and Trosow agree, is a lack of op­tions.

“The choice is be­tween no ap­pli­ca­tion, or giv­ing ev­ery­thing away,” Rosen­berg said of us­ing cer­tain apps or de­vices. She’d said she’d even be will­ing to pay for an up­graded ver­sion to pro­tect her data.

Trosow is look­ing next to ex­am­ine ever more de­vices.

But the re­search he’s done so far has il­lu­mi­nated some fright­en­ing ex­am­ples, like Mat­tel’s pro­posed “smart” baby mon­i­tor that would in­ter­act with a child. Its roll­out was can­celled after a bar­rage of pub­lic out­rage.

“Can you imag­ine grow­ing up at­tached to a toy at that level. . . where it’s a sub­sti­tute for hu­man con­tact?” Trosow asked.

“I just think that’s the be­gin­ning of some re­ally ter­ri­ble hor­ror movie.”

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