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Tech overdose
Take control of your tech before it takes control of you. (Photo: Getty / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

BusinessJuly 19, 2022

Are our TV sets spying on us? ‘It’s pretty scary … you should be worried’

Tech overdose
Take control of your tech before it takes control of you. (Photo: Getty / Treatment: Tina Tiller)

Modern homes are full of AI-driven tech and apps programmed by algorithms. Do you know how to use it safely? We asked an expert for some advice.

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A Ring security camera points down our driveway and films every visitor who comes to our door, catching everything from couriers to stray cats, then sends notifications and footage to my phone. A Nest smoke alarm tells us off using a stern American accent if we leave the shower door open and moisture fills the hallway. A wifi-connected TV entertains us at night, and smart speakers soundtrack our days. The kids have one in each of their bedrooms.

The tech that fills our home, like many modern homes, doesn’t end there. A borrowed robot vacuum cleaner mops the kitchen floors and scrubs the carpets, interrupting our conversations if it thinks it hears its name (“Yuki”). Phones, laptops, gaming consoles and iPads full of algorithm-driven apps litter our house, begging to be picked up with a chorus of notification pings, day and night. My son, who is 12, just got his first iPhone.

This is fine, right?

Erm, no. “It’s all pretty scary,” says Alex Bartley Catt. “You should be worried … I don’t think I’m going to calm your nerves at all.” I’d called the managing director of Spacetime, an Aotearoa tech company that helps businesses get the best out of AI, to find out if using all this tech at home is safe. I did so after spending the past week reading a collection of headlines like this, and this, and this. Here’s the worst one I could find: “Smart device warning: Homes ‘exposed’ to 12,000 attacks per week.”

What the hell is happening? Is any digital device safe to use any more? Should I consider adopting an Amish way of life and dump it all in the bin?

Bartley Catt gets asked this question a lot. Digital safety is often the first thing he’s queried about when he tells people what he does for a living. “People are worried about privacy,” he says. Mention the phrase “artificial intelligence” and they freak out. “There’s the Terminator, the end of the world, the singularity, all wrapped up in it.” People want him to tell them if Jeffrey Bezos is listening to their conversations through an Alexa smart speaker, or if their smart TV livestreams their living room antics to foreign tech hubs.

His response doesn’t allay any of those fears. Yes, your smart devices will be listening in, if you let them. Bartley Catt uses our Samsung TV as an example. “TVs that are made today have a microphone. They’ll be listening to TV shows you’re watching to see if you’re being delivered certain ads in those TV shows and if certain product ranges are mentioned. Those TVs are definitely listening.” (I asked Samsung for a response and didn’t receive a reply, but here’s the tech giant’s global privacy policy, which states “we may collect … additional information about the network, channels, and programs that you view …”.)

The problem, Bartley Catt says, is that no one checks their privacy settings. With each new app or smart device added to homes or phones, pages of intricate details are often agreed to with a quick swipe of a finger. “No on reads the terms of service. No one understands the settings,” says Bartley Catt. He’s right: I see those things as an annoyance, a box to tick to get it over with. “We put too much trust in technology manufacturers.” That means unrelated apps may have access to internet browsing histories and location services, and use those details to then sell your data to marketers.

Suddenly, you might be getting intricately personalised ads that are hard to resist. “They’re doing a whole lot of things to profile your personality and build a psychographic understanding of who you are and the people you know.”

Alex Bartley Catt
Alex Bartley Catt says it’s worth diving into settings to understand what apps and devices have access to (Photo: Supplied)

At its worst, that means you’re stuck in a mega-marketing circle of hell. Walk past a shop, and you might receive an ad for something for sale inside that store, just like this bonkers scene in Minority Report. Talk to someone else with location services enabled and you might get served ads based on what your friend is into. “It gets as deep as, if you’re lying down in bed with your phone, you’ll be delivered different ads than if you’re sitting up with your phone,” Bartley Catt says. “The level of specificity they have and the ways they can market to you … is insane.”

The good news is that this can all change today. Bartley Catt recommends settling in for a fun evening of privacy management. That means diving into the settings of every single device and app, and making sure it can only access what you want it to. “You’ve got to go really deep to figure out what they’re really doing with that information and how it will impact your life,” he says. “It is hard, it’s time-consuming. It will inevitably make your life a little bit less connected.”

If it stops you from buying a four-slice toaster when you live alone, it might be worth it. But, if that’s still not enough, you can go back to basics. Dump the phone, get rid of all your voice-activated tech, and return to a more primitive way of life. “Maybe you’ve got a dumb phone rather than a smart phone,” says Bartley Catt. “Maybe you buy a specific kind of computer that has really deep security settings.”

He admits he hasn’t done this, and is about as bad as you and me at giving tech companies access to his personal data. “You would find me on Facebook, you’ll find me on most of the social media channels,” he says. “I actually love Google. It makes life easier, right?”

Balance, and understanding that tech companies always have the upper hand, is key. “If you’ve got an awareness about how advertising affects you and how it might make you to do certain things then maybe you can go some way to being mindful of it and not having it affect you so much,” says Bartley Catt. “It’s [about] being careful what you search for and what digital footprint you leave online.” Good luck out there.

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