Rage Against the Machines

By Les Firestein   |   June 25, 2020

Thanks To the Internet of Things, It’s Always Open Mic Night at Su Casa

Humanity may never have been more disjointed, tribal, and disconnected but our stuff, thanks to the Internet of Things, is thriving wirelessly and virtually everything has been WiFi enabled, or, in today’s parlance, is “smart.”

It’s my observation that most things with the “smart” moniker are now made of “metal look” plastic instead of sturdy metal so they’re less expensive to ship from Saipan to Santa Barbara. And because these things are metalized plastic in addition to being overly complicated, they are cheaper (for you) and fail sooner (for them). So, to review: lower price point, delivered to you by drone, failing one day out of warranty so you buy them twice – that’s what Alexa calls smart. 

Moreover, all our stuff talking to each other has formed a gossipy U.N. of things that works, sadly, much better than our hominid United Nations. And what is the result of all our devices communicating in the same language with a shared goal, without the petty human conflicts of race, border, and religion? I mean other than putting out enough EMF in your living room to cook a hot dog with additional radiation left over so you can toast s’mores indoors?

No WiFi, but you could sharpen a fireplace tool with this beast.

The result is our stuff has open mics and cameras and location trackers everywhere, creating little satellite branches of the NSA under our roofs. It’s a dystopic Pixar movie written by Orwell and directed by Putin, where the things have taken over and the E in Wall-E stands for Evil.  

You’d be surprised how much networking you’ve inadvertently opted in to and how much sensitive info you may not know you’re sharing. You may also not realize how much stuff you needed to actively opt out of, lest your silence be interpreted as legally binding tacit approval.

If you think I’m some Luddite or paranoiac, let me tell you what happened just the other day.

Upon waking, I go to swipe open my iPad but noticed it had updated a few apps, which I decided to check out because maybe I lied about not being paranoid. Amongst the various apps that updated, one was Pinterest which I took a closer look at because I’m let’s say adequately versed in the Nerd Arts & Sciences.

Going back through my iPad’s time machine, I learned that in the dead of night Pinterest had given itself permission to open my camera so it could take pictures of my home. “This will allow us to greater customize the marketing we send your way,” enthused the Pinterest bot. That certainly aroused my Pinterest! Ever wonder how you browse a new pillow or just talk about a new pillow… then suddenly you’re being carpet bombed through all platforms with pillow ads with timebomb discount codes? Thanks to passive opt-in permissions, it’s always open mic night… and day… and open camera… at su casa. The Internet of Things says party at your house!  

You Watch Your TV A Few Hours A Day. It’s Watching You 24/7

Ever wonder why good flat screen TVs dropped in price from thousands of dollars to just a few hundred? Was it the economy of scale? Or did we win a trade war or something? If only.

Turns out the TV manufacturers changed their business model. To, like, the way cell phone subscriptions used to work. They’ll basically give you the TV for near free in exchange for the right to access your private info plus the infotech mother lode: easy access to the rest of your web enabled Things. That means your inexpensive TV has access to your profile as a consumer, your spending habits, viewing habits. It’s info they sell again and again yes to other corporations but really to anyone who’ll pay for it – it’s a little like The Producers – they’ll sell as many shares as there are buyers.

So, yeah, maybe you only paid a few Benjamins for a decent quality TV. But your TV is getting the better end of the deal and they’ve probably got you on at least some form of low-grade subscription – so they can track you going forward.

To make matters worse, any device on your network can get to any other device on your network because they get along nicely. Which means your TV, among other things, can access your purchase history, browser history, search history, and passwords – from anything within range that’s “smart.” Maybe a better word than “smart” would be “spy.” As Aretha Franklin sang presciently in a song, ironically, written in 1984, “Who’s Zooming Who?”

Apoca-clicks Now!

If you think it’s a benign problem that you have an easy-to-hack network inside your home tying together all your sensitive info, to give you an idea how things can get epically out of hand, consider the Mirai botnet. “Botnet” is Nerdu for a network controlled by an invisible, typically malevolent source without your knowledge. 

The Mirai botnet works exclusively through your highly vulnerable (meaning hackable) Internet of Things. When I say “easy to hack” I mean like a child could do it with a flip phone.

The Mirai was first detected on October 21, 2016. Its test run was crashing a million Deutsche Telecom users. Soon thereafter it went to work on other networks of things, crashing Twitter, Spotify, PayPal, Netflix, eBay, and Reddit. The reason we know all these attacks came from the Mirai is that botnets leave a digital “snail trail” of code as the worm attacks different targets.

Scaling up, on October 24, 2016 Mirai crashed the entire electronic infrastructure of Liberia.

In an article in UK’s Telegraph, it was theorized this shutting down of the entirety of Liberia was a tune up for something much bigger and that Mirai’s ultimate goal was… wait for it… likely presidential election interference in the U.S. later that month. The Telegraph article that espoused the U.S. election interference theory was published on November 4, 2016 by a reporter named Cara McGoogan. Our presidential election took place four days after the appearance of McGoogan’s article. And I think you know what happened from there. Kinda makes you think twice about making your network code 123456. Or rolling the dice with a factory default.   

WiFi Backlash

Call me a curmudgeon, but personally I prefer information privacy to a printer that gossips with Alexa and all my other things, and orders the most expensive thing on the menu when its hungry. You see, my printer happens to be a picky eater and only likes HP premium toner that’s priced like caviar run through a wine press. And it rats me out to HP when I order off-brand toner refills. Again, who’s Zooming who?

Excessive WiFi has actually spawned an industry of “dumb” appliance revival: premium reconditions of old school appliances with no smart connectivity whatsoever. I’m talking $400 for a “dumb” Sunbeam two-slice toaster from 1954, and $300 for a stout Panasonic “Point-O-Matic” pencil sharpener that’s built like a tank and just fricking works. Of course, it won’t send a warning to your phone that your point is getting dull, or that your pencil is getting too short, nor is it enabled with geotracking to let you know where you left it. That’s kind of the point.

I recently had to go clean out my folks’ place. Their appliances, 40 years old on average and still functioning, only did what they did. The only thing they connected to was a wall outlet. Things were built to be durable and hearty – remember that term, “durable goods”? “Durable goods” meant a consumer good that would last more than three years. How many of those do we have today? Your phone? No. Computer? No. Blender? Maybe. Today’s business model is to sell you a product that’s adequate but continuously in need of upgrades, updates, and “optimizations.”

More importantly, the goal today of many manufacturers of the things one finds on the Internet of Things is to re-sell your info and ultimately get you to be a long-term subscriber to a brand. Then if you don’t keep up with your subscriptions, updates, patches, and occasionally throw down a credit card or update your info, Big Brother may throttle back your phone or router or printer or no longer support an old operating system. On the Information Highway, it’s information highway robbery.

Compare this to all the dumb stuff my folks bought… You’d buy these products once, and they’d work forever. Now that’s my definition of “smart.”


You might also be interested in...