Data Vampires: Harbingers of an Opaque and Asymmetric Internet

I am not a technology-loathing neo-Luddite. I enjoyed many years in executive roles in high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and willingly admit to owning a full complement of consumer technology devices. I’ll even confess to using tracking apps on my iPhone. For the most part, I like my connected life using these devices and services. What I don’t like is the growing lack of transparency and imbalance in my relationship with companies that provide online services.

Maybe I’m naive but it did seem that, until recently, my relationship with service providers on the Internet was reasonably open and symmetric. When I use Google’s search engine, the company collects data about me to sell ads to online publishers. In exchange for returning a long list of often quite relevant links to my queries, Google learned what was on the top of my mind in that moment and used that data to serve up targeted ads through their AdWords network. It seems fair. We all know the deal and if we don’t like the terms, we can always use DuckDuckGo, a search engine which doesn’t track users. The search results aren’t as good but it does maintain your privacy.

And most of us like our free email and willingly cede yet another chunk of our privacy to avoid paying $5–10 a month for an encrypted, private email account. “Free” email from Yahoo, Google and other services does come at the cost of being barraged with targeted ads that are often annoying. But the terms are on the table — your email account costs you nothing. Same with Facebook. Nominally “free” but users know they are “paying” with having poorly targeted ads inserted as “suggested posts” in their timelines.

Yes, life on the Internet was simple! Your active engagement with service providers was as open and symmetric as you could expect given that most Internet users want everything to be free. That began to change when big corporations and venture capitalists began to see the possibilities of the Internet of Things (IoT) to capture even more private consumer data.

This emerging IoT technology provides an opportunity for companies to use Data Vampires to stealthily collect trillions of bits of data about the daily activity of consumers. Under the guise of providing smart home automation devices to make life easier, companies slip these spies into homes to silently collect information about what is happening inside. Steady streams of personal data are sent 24/7 to their “big data” systems in the cloud. Maybe you thought you had just bought a “learning” thermostat or intelligent light switch. You were happy since you were living in a “smart home”, right?

Sadly, the truth is different and an opaque, asymmetric Internet is becoming the norm. It’s not a symmetric transaction when consumers have to purchase these Data Vampires and then install them in their homes to enable companies to spy on their families. And how transparent it is when these corporations fail to exhibit the common decency to tell you up front what they are doing? It’s no wonder a recent Gallup poll about consumer confidence in institutions found that consumers ranked big business only slightly ahead of Congress which is at the very bottom of the list.

We started on our mission to expose Data Vampires because we feel our trust was broken and the technocrats in Silicon Valley seemed to have lost any sense of social responsibility. Or maybe they honestly believe that consumers will give up personal privacy and control of their homes for a world of better targeted ads. You don’t have to look too far to find folks who actually think precisely targeted ads are a social good. We don’t and we certainly don’t believe consumers need to blindly accept an increasingly opaque and asymmetric Internet. We believe they should assert their rights by demanding an open, transparent Internet of Things that protects their privacy and retains full consumer control over their personal environment. To that end, we propose a Consumer IoT Bill of Rights at the Open IoT Foundation website.