Home > Opinion > At CES 2014, everything is watching you

At CES 2014, everything is watching you

It says it right there, on the door to the Las Vegas Convention Center: “These premises are under surveillance.” The warning is there even when CES hasn’t taken over every nook and cranny of the 1.92 million square feet of show floor space, of course. But it is especially appropriate this week.

Everything at CES 2014 is watching you.

If there’s one element that the products of the future share, it’s surveillance. The most glaring evidence of this is the cameras. So. Many. Cameras. A vast majority of forthcoming consumer tech products have cameras built in, are cameras, or can have a camera slapped on them. Smartphones, laptops, tablets, cars, televisions, watches, drones – you can’t walk 10 feet at CES without running into another product that can snap pictures and videos.

On top of all the cameras-equipped products on display – most of which, I admit, aren’t powered on or watching anyone on the show floor – you have a sudden influx at this year’s show of Glassholes. So. Many. Glassholes. Seriously, yesterday, I witnessed seven people in a row walk past me wearing Google Glass like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Woe is the day that becomes true.

“If it’s in your house, it could be gathering information about what’s happening inside.”

The plethora of cameras is, however, the just the most obvious part of the future of constant surveillance. The more significant part of our always-watched future remains hidden to the naked eye.

Virtually every new product, you see, will soon be connected to the Internet, transferring an endless array of information about our lives to servers around the globe. This so-called Internet of Things is in full force at this year’s CES. And when you see it all condensed into a single building, as we did this week, it suddenly seems overwhelming.

If you are somehow just learning about the Internet of Things right now, it basically refers to any device connected to the Internet that’s not just a PC or mobile device. We’re talking refrigerators, dishwashers, thermostats, smoke alarms, light bulbs, chairs, fitness monitors, and dang near anything else.

Each of these products uses an Internet connection for a different purpose. LG’s fancy new washing machines, for example, allow you to send it text messages. And its refrigerators know what products you have in the freezer. And Samsung just released an app that lets you control all your smart appliances from anywhere in the world. It’s The Jetsons future we’ve all been talking about for the past 50 years come to life.

replay-camerasOne day, in the not too distant future, we will expect our toasters to have Internet access just as we count on a cell signal and reliable Wi-Fi on our smartphones and laptops today. Never again will you have to wonder if you shut off the lights or turned off the iron; you’ll just pull up the controls on your phone to check. Nor will you need to turn on the heat or air conditioning. With a product like the Nest thermostat, your house will simply know automatically that you are home, and adjust the temperature accordingly. Awesome, right?

Trouble is, this future of convenience requires us to reveal far more about our lives and ourselves to an increasing number of companies, and they may or may not know how to properly handle that data.

“I would say, as a rule of thumb, that it’s not called the Internet of Everything for no reason. It is everywhere, and it’s connected to more things than you can possibly imagine,” says Marc Rogers, lead security researcher at Lookout. “If you’re wearing it, it could be getting information about what you are doing, where you are going. If it’s in your house, it could be gathering information about what’s happening inside.”

Which effectively means that the sliver of privacy that we currently take for granted will be gone. Dead. Kaput. Maybe that’s something you care about, maybe not. Either way, that is the way the world is headed – and it’s picking up a major amount of steam in 2014. Plus, because many of these gizmos that will collect and share information about us do so with a suite of hidden sensors, most people may not comprehend exactly what’s happening. 

“The average guy on the street may not have the necessary skill set to pick up a device and say, ‘Well, this has got the following sensors on it, so it’s collecting this kind of data, and that’s going to be this kind of problem,’” says Rogers.

The most serious consequence of turning over all this data is not that LG or Nest are spying on you through your appliances, but that simply creating that data leaves you vulnerable to hackers, spies, and thieves who may have a vested interest in learning as much about your life as they can get their grubby mitts on.

Adding to this danger, at least in these early days of the Internet of Things, is that many companies creating connected devices don’t have much experience with software and data security.

I can only hope the companies creating this new connected world are ready for the challenge.

“You’ve got companies coming from areas of comfort and strength – audio companies, bio-medical companies – who are addressing the problems that they’re used to in their space,” says Rogers. “But Internet’s new to them, and so they’ve not been exposed to the issues there. And they may not necessarily be asking the right questions, or even being given the right information to address those problems.”

Teaching companies how to properly jump into the Internet of Things revolution is one of Rogers’ primary missions at CES this year. According to him, we users shouldn’t be the ones worrying about potential privacy and security problems. Instead, he says, “we in the industry should make sure that those issues are accounted for.”

Before you freak out and chuck your new Nest through a third-story window, Rogers, who says he has around 50 connected devices in his home and “fully connected living room,” assures me that “right now, people should not be panicking.” Connected appliances and other devices remain relatively few and far between, in terms of the number real-life users, so dastardly hackers haven’t yet begun to spend their time trying to infiltrate these system. But eventually, they will. And I can only hope the companies creating this new connected world are ready for the challenge when they do.

Still, Rogers says that the worst fears about the Internet of Things are simply unnecessary. 

“There are a lot of messages of fear being given about things like zero-day attacks, cyberweapons being used, and the threat of someone taking over thermostats and turing them into a botnet that can take out a city,” he says. “And while these things are real risks that those of us in security should worry about, the consumer should not because these aren’t risks that consumers are going to face.”

Well, I feel comforted. Do you?