“Hey Alexa, play me the Beastie Boys.” “Ok Google, find me a good Christmas present for a 14 yr. old girl who collects Star Wars figures.” “Greg? Greg, it appears your milk is past its expiry date. Please consider buying fresh.” - said your ‘smart’ refrigerator to you one morning. This would be even more weird if your name was something other than Greg. And the mother-of-all-smart-devices that most moviegoers in North America will remember: “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
These are all (*mostly*, HAL is better called an artificial intelligence. We’ll get to the difference) examples of the Internet of Things: that nebulous cloud of appliances, tools, and ‘non-computer’ devices of all kinds that are connected to the Internet. These connections bring some benefits – they would have to, or nobody would bring those products into their homes. And clearly, the sale of such smart speakers like the Amazon Echo (Alexa’s ‘home’ if you will) alone tells us that people love their Orwellian-surveillance-masked-as-digital-assistants. Add these sales to the already-massive sales of smart home thermostats like the Nest and people in their millions have, knowingly or not, invited big Tech companies into their In-Real-Life homes and spaces.
Before the IoT came into the mainstream, people’s digital lives were scrutinized by advertisers and big Tech companies through our phones and computers and browsing habits. Now, our physical lives are too. My sarcasm aside, numerous writers have remarked on the security and privacy implications of this technological trend.
Behind all of the apparent benefits (colour me unimpressed if the principle thing these devices can do is tell me my lettuce has spoiled. Don’t people ever LOOK in their fridges???) of these devices lurks the promise of ‘artificial intelligence.’ More rightly called machine learning, these IoT devices routinely ‘learn’ from their users’ habits. Every time the user interacts with the device, the data generated by that interaction gets pushed through a complicated algorithm that can then make a prediction of future behavior based on the data it has received up to then.
That’s why Alexa gets better at suggesting music to you after you’ve talked to it for a few months. That’s why Ok Google gets better at gift ideas for teenage girls with collection urges – it’s taken in the spending habits of literally billions of purchases and mapped them by geography, demography, and a thousand other factors. All of these devices ‘intelligence’ is the accumulation of peoples’ activities. And we don’t always know what these devices are collecting, how they are storing it, and who ultimately owns that data, and what can that owner legally do with it.
The Glass Room Experience (IoT edition) invites us to explore that hidden relationship in greater detail. A partnership between Tactical Tech and the Mozilla Foundation, the Glass Room Experience is available at Toronto Public Library for a limited time. On now at Annette St Library until Friday Dec 7th, then at Woodside Square library until New Year’s Eve, this interactive art installation invites users to scrutinize big Tech and the IoT in much the same way that those entities are scrutinizing us. And like all good exposés, it offers users something to do with their new-found awareness through a Data Detox Kit.
Come into the Glass Room this year, and make 2019 the year you know more about the privacy trade-offs you make so as to avoid having to flick through your mp3 collection, or smell your lettuce.