When I was ten years old, my cousin told me how hackers could take control of my webcam from anywhere in the world and watch what I’m doing. I went to bed that night terrified that some creep halfway across the world was watching me sleep, and grew up to be one of those people paranoid about online privacy, putting masking tape over my webcam.
While my cousin’s story may have seemed like a cheap scary story at the time, it has become reality. Recently, the CBC reported that Shodan — a search engine that indexes computers and devices — “nanny cams, security cameras and other connected devices around the world that don’t ask for a username or password.” Users can find videos from all over the world, ranging from a child sleeping on a couch in Israel to an elderly woman stretching in a Polish fitness center.
The particularly terrifying thing about this engine is how it can gain access to more than just webcams. One of Shodan’s features allows users to see “The Big Picture,” which according to their website means tapping into “power plants, Smart TVs, refrigerators and much more.” Not only that, but Shodan gives away your unique IP address, allowing users to put a physical location to the image.
While it seems like an extreme case, Shodan reveals several problems with the way we interact with the Internet and technology. First, as various devices become increasingly diffused into our daily lives, our individual actions to combat privacy infringements are getting correspondingly more onerous. Most of us do not have spare time, nor technical knowledge to actually ensure each of the devices or platforms we use is completely secure.
Even if we did, many of our actions remain exposed through other means we cannot control. If you’re not on Facebook, your friends are, and there are probably photos of you that you don’t know about. If you don’t keep your location settings on in your phone, that doesn’t matter — your location can still be determined by tracing which Wi-Fi networks your phone has picked up on. If you’re anywhere in public, you can bet on the fact that you can be surveyed in some way. Cameras are inexpensive and ubiquitous, from corner stores to traffic lights and everywhere in between.
70 years after Orwell wrote 1984, Big Brother really can watch you at home.
A significant consequence of this is that this information can be translated into consumer behavior data to sell to corporations. Indeed, Shodan boasts to provide corporations with a “competitive advantage” by allowing them to tap into “empirical market intelligence” through the search engine. By showing a client who is using their product and where, companies can create more targeted advertising to manipulate consumer behavior.
A state in which citizens are being watched, recorded, and manipulated by corporations erodes the principles we enshrine in a liberal democracy; that is, individuals being able to act on their own free will with minimal intervention. Yet, we seem to be desensitized to these dangers — after all, Facebook has been doing it for years now.
The normalization of this behavior, however, is no reason to excuse it; in fact, it provides even greater impetus to protest and fight back. On an individual level, we can certainly attempt to keep on top of privacy settings, protecting our various social media platforms and devices with complex passwords and turning off location services for certain apps.
It is imperative, however, for top down legislative cyber regulation to come into effect. Simply giving consumers the option to make their technology more secure puts an unreasonable onus on the regular citizen to police their own behavior, when it is in fact the government’s responsibility to ensure our protection. The scope and magnitude of this problem is hardly manageable for the citizenry to attempt to combat.
Ema Ibrakovic is a first-year student at Victoria College studying social sciences.