from the so,-yes-then? dept
We’ve talked in the past about how claims of dangerous silence from certain law enforcement and intelligence groups within the American government are so much the crying of “wolf!” As some will decry the use of security tools like encryption, or other privacy tools, the fact is that the so-called “internet of things” industry has created what is essentially an invited-in army of confidential informants. Domestic surveillance, once a time-consuming, laborious, and difficult task for those doing the spying has since become laughably easy by relative standards. One can imagine J. Edgar Hoover having to change his trousers if he learned exactly to what degree Americans today have accepted hackable or easily-compromised cameras and microphones into our homes, so excited would he be.
In this era, then, it would seem the public buying these IoT products would have an interest in learning if their government is using those products against them in this way. In large part, it seems that the government ain’t telling. Take the Amazon Echo, for instance, a device with a microphone that is voice-activated to play your favorite music, tell you the weather, read you the latest news, *cough*-let the government spy on you-*cough*, tells you the traffic, and reads you your audiobook– wait, what was that government spying thing? Is that for real?
Gizmodo recently tried to find out via an FOIA request. The government’s response was a shrug of the shoulders and the wink of an eye.
Back in March, I filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI asking if the agency had ever wiretapped an Amazon Echo. This week I got a response: “We can neither confirm nor deny…”
In many ways the Echo is a law enforcement dream. Imagine if you could go back in time and tell police that one day people would willingly put microphones in their own homes that, with a little hacking, could be heard from anywhere in the world 24/7. First, you’d need to explain what hacking was, but then they’d be like, “Nah bruh, yer pullin’ my leg.”
The full FOIA response is embedded below. As Gizmodo notes, there is neither a confirmation or denial that records of surveillance by Echo exist, and the letter even goes on to insist that this response shouldn’t be taken to mean that there are in fact such records. But, particularly in a post-Snowden world in which we live, what else can you expect the public to think? With all that’s gone on, both the innocent and nefarious alike would be crazy not to simply operate on the assumption that the alphabet agencies were hacking all the internet of things it could before this FOIA response. The government’s non-answer in this case will serve as confirmation for some and a return to this SOP for most others.
And screaming in the vaccum of certainty here is the overriding sense that any oversight of these surveillance practices that might exist is sorely lacking in teeth. It’s difficult not to picture Americans shuffling within their own homes, casting worried looks at the devices around them, wondering for all the world when each might be weaponized as a telescreen. If the internet of things is going to become a new great industry, this is certainly going to be one of the hurdles it must overcome.