Pri­vacy: J. Edgar’s not the Hoover you need to worry about these days

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By THOMAS L. KNAPP

Is your vac­uum cleaner spy­ing on you? Hamza Sha­ban of the Washington Post re­ports that iRobot, maker of the "au­tonomous" Roomba vac­uum, may even­tu­ally sell the in­ter­nal maps of your home the de­vice builds to fa­cil­i­tate its work to the mak­ers of other "smart home" de­vices.

In the lat­est phase of our fren­zied tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment, it's clear that yes, our gad­gets do col­lect and use more and more in­for­ma­tion about us, and that that in­for­ma­tion pro­gres­sively ram­i­fies across more, big­ger, and more in­te­grated net­works. The big­ger ques­tion: Is it worth it? The an­swer: It de­pends. Ben­jamin Franklin cau­tioned us against "giv[ing] up es­sen­tial lib­erty, to pur­chase a lit­tle tem­po­rary safety." If he lived to­day, I think he'd be fas­ci­nated by the In­ter­net of Things -- and that in up­dat­ing the quote above to de­scribe it, he'd likely sub­sti­tute "pri­vacy" and "con­ve­nience" for "lib­erty" and "safety."

I'm not go­ing to try to tell you not to buy an au­tonomous vac­uum or smart ther­mo­stat or Ama­zon Alexa voice-ac­ti­vated de­vice (I have a cou­ple of those my­self). They can be in­cred­i­bly use­ful. They can make our lives bet­ter in sig­nif­i­cant ways.

But when weigh­ing the associated costs, don't for­get to ac­count for the risks in­her­ent in shar­ing your in­for­ma­tion. Who's gath­er­ing it? What will be done with it? Where will it end up, in­ten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise? The com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions, how­ever an­noy­ing and in­tru­sive they might be­come, aren't the half of it.

One not ter­ri­bly far-out, if some­what dystopian, pre­dic­tion:

As au­tonomous vac­u­ums and sim­i­lar map-re­liant de­vices be­come the norm (and as they get cheaper, that will hap­pen), gov­ern­ments will be­come ma­jor cus­tomers for the in­for­ma­tion they gather. The ob­vi­ous ap­pli­ca­tion for that data is law en­force­ment (for ex­am­ple, be­ing able to call up the floor plan of a house when plan­ning a search or raid). But you should also ex­pect that your county as­ses­sor will use that in­for­ma­tion when cal­cu­lat­ing square footage for your tax bill, and don't be sur­prised if city plan­ning and zon­ing bu­reau­crats come knock­ing to talk about that ad­di­tion you built with­out a per­mit.

And then, of course, there's the crim­i­nal el­e­ment (but I re­peat my­self). The same peo­ple who stole your credit card num­ber at the gas pump last year may ac­quire and use this type of in­for­ma­tion to case your house for prospec­tive bur­glary next year.

Watch your­self. And never for­get that your stuff is watch­ing you too.

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