Naive Acquisition of Dual-use Surveillance Technology


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

Progressive market-driven transformation of personal appliances into spyware?


February 2015 has been witness to worldwide news coverage of the manner in which new “Smart TVs” were designed to listen to, if not visually record, those watching them. The major issue of concern was how the information acquired in this way was used, by whom, and with what constraints. The point variously made is that many forms of “smart technology” are now enabled in this way with questionable implications for the user. The case of the TV is therefore to be usefully considered as symptomatic of a wider challenge for users. The controversy offers insights into what might be appropriately termed “domestic espionage” or espionage with user complicity — reminiscent of issues famously raised by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Coincidentally it so happens that the author of this document purchased such a TV a month previously to replace a set which had been operating for 20 years — in order to benefit from a wider range of program channels and the extra features associated with newer technology. This note reflects the consequences of immediately raising the reported issues with the vendor from which it had been purchased.

The personal experience gives focus to the concern that installation of a device, enabled in this way, transforms an environment into one which bears a curious resemblance to the interrogation room of a security service — observing those present through a one-way window. In cultivating a culture of fear, creating this impression may be may be the intention of some parties.

The most recent concerns about the Samsung Smart TV have been evoked over the same period as the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection, it is therefore appropriate to recall the techno-optimism which characterizes Silicon Valley and its followers. A valuable question had been raised — in the period when the possibility of hacking the Smart TV had already been reported (Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur, Can Silicon Valley Save the World? Foreign Policy, 24 June 2013). It has been recognized hat “defeating global poverty” was the latest start-up trend — with the question But is there really an app for that? This article has evoked various responses (Stefaan Verhulst, Can Silicon Valley Save the World? GovLab Digest, 24 June 2013; Leigh Buchanan, Will Silicon Valley Save the World? No, But Here’s What Will, Inc Magazine, 29 July 2013; Ned Breslin, Silicon Valley Won’t Save the World, but… Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2 July 2013; David Gura, Why Silicon Valley can’t end world poverty, Marketplace, 27 June 2013).

There is therefore considerable irony to the current preoccupation with cybersecurity to protect any “homeland” — with the aid of dual-purpose Silicon Valley high-tech effectively designed to invade the home. Is the purpose indeed to increase the sense of threat and insecurity in the expectation that people will turn to authority?

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Feb 2015.

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