Proprietary software is always untrustworthy: Beware “smart” devices

Recently “smart” TVs (TVs with microphones and/or cameras running proprietary software) came back into the news:

and one dismissive article from which referred to the article’s republication as “shrill” and concluding “No updates or additional information occurred between the original controversy and renewed interest in it in 2016.”.

The article was originally from 2015 and republished again in 2016 but that’s hardly the most important part of the news. Whether the collected data is distributed commercially or given away gratis is also not the most important point. The important part is to alert computer users to how easy it is for devices to spy on them, record anything in mic/camera range, distribute those recordings to others, and index that information for later use.

People have come to expect that certain areas of their lives are private, and they are free to behave naturally. One should have private places, one needs privacy to live a full and dignified human life. But if a device with monitoring equipment in it is operated by proprietary software (user-subjugating software; software the user is not free to run, inspect, share, or modify at any time for any reason) the user can’t trust the software does what the user wants. Thus one’s cell/mobile phone may be listening in on the mic and storing and/or sending a copy of what’s in mic range without the user’s knowledge or consent. The same may be true of the camera, GPS unit, or cell/mobile radio (which is also used for geolocation). Hence cell/mobile phones are more honestly called “trackers” as that is their primary function and the function they do most frequently.

These devices can be made more trustworthy if they run on exclusively free software. But most of the devices in the so-called “Internet of things” (devices that connect to the Internet, often needlessly, including some refrigerators, light sockets, and electronic picture frames) run on proprietary software. In fact, Brad Kuhn points out “the dystopia of Minority Report needs proprietary software”.

People typically have TV sets in their bedrooms pointed at their bed so they can watch TV from bed. People are often naked in bed and sometimes having sex. Putting this together means if their TV is a “smart” TV, or if they have a tracker next to them on the nightstand while they’re naked possibly having sex, they become inadvertent porn stars for those who gain access to the data captured by their “smart” devices. If a representative from, say, Nuance Communications, Inc. (the party that handles audio data from Samsung “smart” TVs) asked to watch while they disrobed and had sex it’s a safe bet most people would refuse. But if they can get access to the data from a sufficiently empowered device running untrustworthy software, they can get much the same information by way of a copy of a recording.

  • Who else gets copies of these recordings? There’s no clear way to tell.
  • What might one do with these recordings? It’s impossible to know, just as one can’t be sure what one would do with old newspaper articles. Refer to them later, to be sure, but in what context? Trying to embarrass someone perhaps to extort something from them? Hold something over them as a means of letting them know their secrets are out? Something else? We can’t say for sure, but we can say that it should be up to the user whether such recordings should have been made in the first place.
  • What can one do to avoid this risk? Avoid devices that run on proprietary software. Beware any device that attempts to let you control it by voice or gesture without a button to initiate voice/gesture control. The only way to implement the kind of voice control seen in ‘Star Trek’ where one merely talks to the computer is to have the computer monitor everything. When proprietary software is in control of the monitoring one can’t be sure what happens to the monitored data.