Believe it or not, the harsh glare of scrutiny on big technology giants has kept them honest, more or less. Realizing how much of their present and future business depends on folks wanting to use their services, they work hard to protect data and privacy. (Like I said, more or less!) After all, our data is what they use to bundle and sell as services to their real customers: advertisers. In the case of Apple, the new marketing pitch is all about “privacy” and how they are not collecting tracking data — a handy way to distinguish themselves from Google and Facebook. I buy Apple products precisely for their stance towards privacy, at least in the U.S. In short, a noble ideology that also helps them sell more gear with fat margins—not that there’s anything wrong with it.
The companies we should be worried about are the many smaller and mid-sized companies that most of us have never heard about. Whether it is app developers surreptitiously selling information to third parties, data breaches at retailers (and their digital platforms), or data-brokers with security systems that have more holes than swiss cheese, these companies will continue to be the cause of most headaches in our digital lives. And they are the group more likely to take liberties with data and privacy.
I began ruminating on this earlier in the week when I read this article about electric utilities resetting the smart thermostats inside residential homes in Houston in response to the rising demand for electricity due to record-breaking heat. This story is a harbinger of our future: what at first seems like some minor convenience and even a seemingly good deal becomes a major problem for those who don’t spend time reading the complicated terms of service documents — which is to say, just about everyone.
In this case, if a customer signed up for an offering called “Smart Savers Texas” from a company called EnergyHub (which is owned by Alarm.com, a seller of security services), they could be entered into sweepstakes. In exchange, they gave permission to EnergyHub to control their thermostats during periods of peak or extreme demand.
This is yet another example of how, though we dread the future controlled by big technology companies, we will ultimately suffer most at the hands of what I call “non-technology” companies that now have access to our private data and control over our lives.
And at the top of the list are companies that have always been hostile to their customers: telephone companies, electric utilities, insurance companies, for-profit hospital systems, big airlines, and other such organizations. They will only use “smart data” to amplify their past bad behavior.
Dark patterns around offers like “Smart Savers Texas” make it virtually impossible for you and me to really discern what we might be signing up for. After all, no one sifts through the pages-long terms of service agreements. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on this one company — this “unclear” behavior is part of the entire digital ecosystem.
Try getting out from under a contract at a health club or canceling your subscription to The New York Times. Good luck. In this digital age, these seemingly simple tasks have only gotten harder. I have been trying, without much success, to unsubscribe from emails from a publishing company for almost a decade. And this is neither the first nor the last time you are going to see “utilities” or other entities muck around with what you assume to be private spaces.
What happened in Houston is among a rapidly growing list of incidents that make me pause about embracing the Smart Home, even though I was an early adopter. The safety of our “connected devices” is increasingly unclear. I have little trust in Amazon’s ability to police its digital shelves. What if the device we are buying is fake or is sending data surreptitiously to an overseas destination? I don’t know if you remember (or even read) this scary story in Vice about seemingly innocuous apps that collect personal data and sell it to anyone willing to pay. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is increasingly important to pause and consider: is cheap really cheap, or is there a bigger price to pay in the long term?
Belatedly, and thankfully, Apple has introduced AppTrackingTransparency (ATT), which will force apps to seek permission to track us and our activity across apps. Deservedly, many have written about the impact of this on Facebook, but it goes beyond that one company. Still, as EFF points out, it doesn’t do enough.
“It doesn’t do anything about ‘first-party’ tracking, or an app tracking your behavior on that app itself,” EFF writes on its blog. “ATT might also be prone to ‘notification fatigue’ if users become so accustomed to seeing it that they just click through it without considering the choice. And, just like any other tracker-blocking initiative, ATT may set off a new round in the cat-and-mouse game between trackers and those who wish to limit them.”
And that’s the challenge. The pressure of protecting our digital sanctity is falling on consumers, not those who profit from it. Even Apple’s efforts shift the workload to ordinary people, and many of us are just not equipped to handle the cognitive load or don’t understand the impact.
For nearly a decade, I have raised questions about an individual’s rights pertaining to how data is collected and used. In 2014, naively I wrote about something called “Terms of Trust,” in which companies explain what they would do with our data in plain language, instead of legalese.
Eight years later, we are still stumbling through the fog — even in our own homes.
June 22, 2021, San Francisco