If companies like Amazon, Google, or Facebook fail to provide adequate protections, they could face lawsuits and government crackdowns over their technology
Alexa, Google Home, and Apple's Homepod are the convenient smart speakers that do our bidding within our homes, but who has access to the data we provide? Concerns over surveillance and data breaches have generated alarm over the amount of personal information we store in home technology, including our location, our home layout, and our voice. Such wariness is understandable, with Google Home Mini initially listening to its owners in the bathroom and uploading the data to Google's servers. After it was exposed as a glitch, the fault was quickly corrected, but the tech's capability of listening in when deactivated is proven.
However, Jake Williams, founder and president of cybersecurity firm Rendition Infoseek, says the average user isn't likely to be targeted by hackers. "Would-be attackers] don't care what you're talking about at home, they're looking to monetize data." He adds, "The level of effort to do it is too high in the vast majority of cases. Your average American just isn't that interesting."
In order to steal data from a home device, a would-be hacker would need "undetectable audio commands, eavesdropping software and targeting devices connected on a network." Since home tech doesn't store information as sensitive as credit card information, social security numbers, or passwords, it's simply not worth the effort. Of course, there are exceptions, as hackers could opt to target individuals in order to extort ransom payments for the data, but these instances are unlikely and rare.
Of greater concern is a massive data breach at one of the company clouds where customers' information is stored. While individual users can set up two-factor authentication and limit the number of external services they link to their home devices, once the information is collected and stored it's up to the company to provide protection. If companies like Amazon, Google, or Facebook fail to provide adequate protections, they could face lawsuits and government crackdowns over their technology, according to Bloomberg Law. Class action lawsuits, regulatory enforcement, and publicity damage could obviously harm company revenues if a data hack were not prevented.
Melissa Kern, piracy and information security law partner at FrostBrown Todd LLC,said, "If there is a security breach that results in unauthorized access to the personal data they have collected, whether due to a security flaw or not." As a result, Amazon and Google run product security tests to check for major flaws. Large tech companies also test the data transfer between personal devices and the cloud, in order to curb vulnerabilities to hacking.
Of course, there are steps consumers can take to protect their information. The straight forward protections include the smart user management. As consultants advise, "For those who are concerned that Google Bots are listening to everything you say, you might find some comfort in knowing that Google Home listens and even processes who is talking locally. It uploads information to the cloud when the wake word, 'OK, Google' or 'Hey, Google,' is spoken or when you long press the touch interface at the top of the device (except for Mini)." Google Home also has indicators that alert you when the device is listening in.
Ultimately, it's up to the consumer to make smart and secure choices with their data. Limiting how many devices are linked to private accounts is an easy but powerful first step. The data clouds hold all the information the device interprets, whether insignificant, unintentional, or highly sensitive.
By submitting your genetic material to a company, you're tacitly agreeing to share your identity and rights to your most private information.
From "fear of missing out" on social media to belligerent political differences, modern existence is increasingly alienating. As a result, more people are interested in "finding their tribe" by digging up their family origins. But genetics-testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe take more than your DNA, they take your privacy to that information, as well. With the Golden State Killer finally arrested thanks to data mined from those genetic databases, law enforcement has proven their ability to access the company's records.
In the same vein, the government can gain access to personal information given to these sites for purposes they deem justified. For example, in 2019, Canadian immigration officials obtained DNA results from sites like Familytreedna.com and Ancestry.com in order to identify immigrants' nationality and trace their relatives. Subodh Bharati, a lawyer representing one targeted individual, told Vice, "I think it is a matter of public interest that border service agencies like the CBSA are able to obtain access to DNA results...There are clear privacy concerns. How is the CBSA able to access this information and what measures are being put in place to ensure this information remains confidential?"
While each site in question denies working with government agencies, if authorities argue that national security is at risk, then the websites "can't really say no," as immigration lawyer Jared Will explains. He condemns the exchange as "extorted consent." Bharati warns potential customers, "Individuals using these sites to look at their family tree should be aware that their confidential information is being made available to the government and that border agents may contact them to help facilitate the deportation of migrants."
Furthermore, accessing your data doesn't always take government measures. For instance, according to 23andMe's policy, "We do not share customer data with any public databases. We will not provide any person's data (genetic or non-genetic) to an insurance company or employer. We will not provide information to law enforcement or regulatory authorities unless required by law to comply with a valid court order, subpoena, or search warrant for genetic or Personal Information." Yet, there's an additional permission users are asked to agree to, reading, "By agreeing to the Research Consent Document, Individual Data Sharing Consent Document, or participating in a 23andMe Research Community, you can give consent for the use of your data for scientific research purposes."
In July 2018, 23andMe announced it was partnering with the world's ninth-largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The agreement grants GSK exclusive access to the genetic information of over 5 million users, and 23andMe received $300 million. GSK released a statement explaining their interest in genetic databases, saying, "The goal of the collaboration is to gather insights and discover novel drug targets driving disease progression and develop therapies."
While it's a universal good to create more effective and closely targeted medicine, the transactional exchange of people's most private information, their DNA, unsettles many. Peter Pitts, president of the Center of Medicine in the Public Interest, told NBC, "Are they going to offer rebates to people who opt in, so their customers aren't paying for the privilege of 23andMe working with a for-profit company in a for-profit research project?" In essence, people are paying the site to make money off their information, with no recompense.
Additionally, despite what's written in the company's policy, "the problem with a lot of these privacy policies and Terms of Service is that no one really reads them," says Tiffany C. Li, a privacy expert and resident fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project. While users can opt to close their 23andMe accounts or retract their permission once it's given, the company emphasizes, "Any research involving your data that has already been performed or published prior to our receipt of your request will not be reversed, undone, or withdrawn."
Lastly, there's the possibility of information leaks. In June 2016, the DNA testing service MyHeritage announced that its database of 92 million accounts had been hacked. The depth of the breach only revealed encrypted emails and passwords, but the company was targeted because the premium on genetic data is far more valuable than credit card or bank information. Hackers could hold DNA data for ransom, according to Giovanni Vigna, co-founder of the cybersecurity company Lastline. He says, "This data could be sold on the down-low or monetized to insurance companies. You can imagine the consequences: One day, I might apply for a long-term loan and get rejected because deep in the corporate system, there is data that I am very likely to get Alzheimer's and die before I would repay the loan."
Ultimately, by submitting your genetic material to a company, you tacitly agree to share your identity and rights to your most private information. As Natalie Ram, a law professor in bioethics, says, "If there is data that exists, there is a way for it to be exploited.