It begins: Amazon’s constantly-listening robotic home assistant was near a domestic murder case, and now the Police wants access to anything it might have heard. There have been similar cases in the past, but this is where it starts getting discussed: There are now dozens of sensors in our house. Do we still have an expectation of privacy in our home?
A recurring theme in the dystopic fiction of the 1950s was an everpresent government watching everything you did, as witnessed in the infamous Nineteen Eighty-Four and many others. Adding to the dystopia, starting in the 1970s with movies such as Colossus, computers are typically added to the mix of watching everything all the time.
However, these fictional dystopias all got one critical thing wrong in predicting the future: the government never installed cameras and microphones in everybody’s home. We did. We did it ourselves. And we paid good money for them, too. A smart television set — with infrared cameras built in, watching the people watching the television set as well as listening to them — costs good money that we happily paid.
“The television set received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the government plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” — 1984
And now, the police wants access to all of it, not unlike in the brilliant short movie Plurality. In news this week, the police has just requested access to the recordings made by an Amazon smart unit in the home in order to solve a murder.
Of course, it always starts like this. A murder case. One murder case. The next time, it’s an assault rape case. The public opinion wants blood, and privacy has no value compared to catching a killer or rapist. So somebody, somewhere with authority, decides that privacy doesn’t apply in cases “like this”. Then, the government notes this mechanism has already been used for “felonies” – severe crime in general – and decides to apply the same rule for tax evasion, a decision which has no support in public opinion, but which is a crime that the government considers severe. A few more years, and the blanket privacy invasion is used to sue teenagers sharing music and to issue the mundanest of parking tickets.
(I want to point out that this ridiculous example of a slippery slope is exactly what happened with the hated mandatory Internet logging laws in Europe. They started out against murder cases and mass-murder terrorism, and before even a decade had passed, the privacy invasions were used against “all crime, including ticket-level misdemeanors”, and the copyright industry had special private access to the surveillance data for the purpose of suing people. This isn’t made up, it’s exactly what happens. The European Supreme Court struck that shit down as utterly unconstitutional, but it took a decade.)
The question is as disturbing as it is important. Legally speaking, do we still have an expectation of privacy in our own home? Especially when we installed equipment for the express purpose of listening to us and watching us?
As the Snowden movie came out, it was highlighted yet again that our mobile phones are constantly-wiretappable microphones, as the movie version of Edward Snowden took everybody’s phones and put them in a Faraday cage in his hotel room. How long until this is an ordinary reflex with ordinary people, and not just the most knowledgeable? “You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — that every sound you made was overheard…”
Legally speaking, do we still have an expectation of privacy in our own home?
There are dozens of microphones and cameras in an ordinary household today. Not to mention all the other sensors: Wirelessly connected scales, cooking equipment, lighting, cars, toothbrushes, energy sensors, fridges. All connected. All wiretappable. If you haven’t used the “calm” color setting on the lights in your home in a while, the government has the ability to know. If your body fat increases, or if you don’t brush your teeth regularly. If you change your coffee grind, or switch to stronger espresso. If you undercook your meat. The list goes on.
There are five separate and important aspects to this.
The first question is if law enforcement can plant surveillance on suspects of serious crime, using their own equipment. Most people would agree that this is reasonable.
The second question is if law enforcement can retroactively activate surveillance, as in the murder case above. As this requires watching and listening to everybody, all the time, it completely eliminates the concept of privacy (even if, as the police tends to argue, only a small fraction of collected data is used for later investigations: the same was true for letters in East Germany — they were all opened and analyzed, but only a small fraction of them were forwarded for later action).
The third question is if law enforcement can legally use your equipment against you: this requires breaking into your equipment and effectively taking control of it. This is a completely separate topic from the first question, which assumes law enforcement is using (and paying for) its own equipment to violate your privacy. Five years ago, it was uncovered that the German Federal Police had broken into ordinary people’s computers to wiretap people – and with root access comes access to webcams and microphones, too. This is a deeply unsettling concept, one that gives national security employees a dangerous conflict of interest, as they’re supposed to be keeping people safe but can use people’s not-being-safe to make their own job easier, if this is permitted.
The third-and-a-half question is if law enforcement can coerce a third party to wiretap you retroactively, like Amazon or Google, eliminating your agency in the matter.
The fourth question is inter-country espionage, such as when the United States NSA broke into Belgacom (the Belgian national telecom operator) and wiretapped the entire European executive and legislative branches, in addition to Angela Merkel’s personal phone. While outrageous, espionage at this level has always existed and to some degree it’s up to every country to protect its own assets.
The fifth and final aspect is the notorious insecurity of all the connected things. The technology sector has only started to learn how to make secure software, including frequent patches. Other industries who are adding connectivity as a bonus feature – scales, fridges, toasters – will be notoriously insecure, won’t patch, and will be around homes for decades.
This discussion is just getting started. Privacy remains your own responsibility.