A Roomba of one’s own

The internet of not-your-things.
The internet of not-your-things.
Image: iRobot
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From Samsung televisions, to Amazon Echoes, Apple tablets to FitBit trackers, the devices that surround us are controlled by software companies. We don’t truly own our devices: the companies own us.

It was recently revealed that that Google collects location information from Android phones, even when a user has turned off their location services. Google, red-faced once again, has promised to stop its spying—but they have done this sort of thing before, and will again. The fundamental problem is that Android owners cannot stop Google from tracking them and selling their data. That’s because they do not truly control their smartphones—Google does. And Google is not alone.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has become an extension of the internet surveillance network that turns all our data into profitable behavioral advertising. Samsung’s smart TVs listened in on conversations in the living room and bedroom. Roomba wants to monetize maps of our houses made by its vacuum-cleaner robots. Vibrator maker Standard Innovation wants to know the intensity, frequency, and time of use of their erotic massage devices in order to advertise something (one can only imagine what).

In the middle of all of this data mining and harvesting, something important has been lost: our sense of ownership. We have lost control over the devices that are an integral part of our lives—and as we are the product of what we consume, we’re therefore also changing our relationship with ourselves.

Property and identity

Ownership not only lets us build wealth and preserve our independence, but it also helps us form our identity. That’s because property and identity are mixed at a gut level. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who has observed the religious loyalty to Apple products or a child’s attachment to his own blanky.)

This fight is therefore not merely over who owns what, but who we are.  Think about a wedding ring or a family home: We treasure these commodities for more than just their economic value. But when you connect them to the internet, the one-way transaction of buying something and then owning it becomes a joint venture. When we lose control over the IoT devices that see and serve us at our most vulnerable, we are losing control over a significant part of ourselves.

If we are surrounded by devices we bought but do not control, do we really own them? Across ages and cultures, psychological ownership emerges when we have control or mastery of an object—when we invest ourselves in the object, and when we know the object intimately. Property scholar Margaret Jane Radin wrote, “Most people possess certain objects they feel are almost part of themselves. These objects are closely bound up with personhood because they are part of the way we constitute ourselves as continuing personal entities in the world.”

In this way, Iot devices are increasingly becoming a part of us—not metaphorically, but literally.

For example, people with diabetes often have a monitor attached to their bodies that takes blood-sugar readings every five minutes in a continuous glucose-monitoring system. Users can keep their blood sugar stable by adjusting their insulin pump in response to the monitor’s alarm. But this system doesn’t work for everyone. In 2013, Dana Lewis needed to sync her monitor to a louder alarm so she wouldn’t sleep through it at night and wake up with dangerously low blood sugar. But even though the device was attached to her for her health, she did not have permission to access its programming interface and implement life-saving changes—only the manufacturers did. She could see her data on their app, but she could not download her data and use it herself.

She was forced to hack her monitor for access. Not only was she able to sync her monitor to a louder alarm, but she used her data to create a predictive algorithm that programmed her insulin pump to automatically adjust in response to her glucose monitor. She open sourced this do-it-yourself artificial pancreas (the organ that usually regulates insulin) in 2015, giving the diabetes community options to better manage their health years before anything will be commercially available. Instead of the medical company owning her health, Dana found a way for her and other diabetics to reclaim that ownership.

Eyes in all places

IoT devices are also closing in on the last few spaces in which humans are able to keep their secrets. We carry sensor-crammed devices with us wherever we go. We encounter even more sensors—cameras, pressure plates, overhead drones, tracking cell towers, and wifi hotspots—on a near-constant basis. Cities are crammed with them, from cameras on traffic lights to readouts from the electric grid. Your local supermarket likely uses fake cell-tower devices to track your presence and movement as you browse the aisles. All of these devices—the ones we bring with us and the ones we encounter around us—talk to one another, learning more about us in concert than any one of them could alone.

This phenomenon, which is called sensor fusion, fills in the gaps between independent pieces of information. Companies can use multiple sensor streams to learn far more about the data subject than the subject meant to reveal. Audio beacons emitted by smart television sets are picked up by smartphones that then can report on viewers’ activity online while playing certain advertisements on the television. As sensors spread, we lose our last refuges from a networked world; the last places where we can make love, dream, argue, curse, scream, speak without caution, or just pull the covers over our heads when the news is too much.

Black mirror

What we share with our devices, they reflect back to us. We see ourselves mirrored by the responses we receive from the data we project. Our Facebook friends determine the kinds of advertisements we see. Our politics determine our Google search results. Without control over what data we share with our IoT devices’ remote masters, we cannot control the image we send to the datasphere: “bad credit risk,” “financially distressed,” “terminally ill,” “likely to divorce,” “bipolar.”

If we do not control the eyes and ears of our devices, or the purposes for which they gather and send information about us, we will have lost not only the ability to project the image that we wish to the rest of the world—we will be increasingly forced to accept its judgment about who we are. And that will be a dark place to be.

We know the price of internet connectedness is surrendering some data; it’s a calculated loss we give up for convenience. But because our devices spy on us without our knowledge, we risk losing control not only of them, but of ourselves: of the self we present to the world, and of the self we are with the blinds drawn. As the safety of our personal space and private thoughts is invaded, we are exposed and taken advantage of at our most vulnerable. Instead of owners, we’ll be owned.