Trusting Our Digital Universe

BeetleI was thinking about the Volkswagen cheating scandal, where they had a computer chip change the emissions of their cars during testing. It got me to thinking about how customers trust or don’t trust businesses. Volkswagen not only lied to regulators that their cars have low emissions, but they went and made that the centerpiece of their advertising campaign.

What made the Volkswagen scandal worse for the rest of us is that they cheated using software. Pretty much everything we do in the telecom industry these days involves software. The Volkswagen scandal, along with many others, might eventually make the public untrusting of everything that includes software.

There are already examples of telecom companies who have violated their customers’ trust. For example, Comcast has made everybody’s WiFi routers into a dual purpose router that can serve people outside of your house. Comcast very quietly told the public about this once, but if I wasn’t in the industry I probably wouldn’t have noticed this change and I’m sure the average household has no idea that Comcast is using their routers that way. Security experts everywhere warn about how dangerous it is to let the public into your WiFi router.

I paused when considering buying a smart TV after it was revealed that Samsung TVs had the ability to watch whatever happens in front of them and to hear everything within earshot. Our PCs have had that same weakness ever since they started building cameras into every monitor.

And a lot of people now mistrust their ISPs who have been funneling all of their data to the NSA. Of course, your ISP already knows everything you do online anyway and there is no telling what some of them might be doing with the information.

We are about to enter an age where people are going to be filling their homes up with many more smart devices. We’ll obviously buy them because they will make our lives easier or more fun, but every one of these devices that is hooked to a network could end up being used to spy on us. You have to know that at least some of the makers of IoT devices will try to spy on us since there is a lot of money in selling data about us all.

I’m not quite sure as a society how we deal with this issue because we have entered uncharted legal waters. Almost all of our product liability laws concentrate of the mechanical nature of the things we buy. In the case of Volkswagen, the mechanical parts of their cars worked just fine; the fault was in their software that had been deliberately manipulated to lie about the performance of the cars. It’s hard to think that anybody except the smartest technical people are going to have any way to know if our devices are doing things we don’t want them to do. Once they get hooked up to a network, their software can spy on us in devious was that are as hard to detect as the Volkswagen software.

Telecom companies have a particularly important obligation to the public. As the ISP most directly serving people we must earn and keep their trust. This is why I am particularly dismayed to see the big carriers like AT&T and Verizon so willingly handing over customer data to the NSA. If the law makes a telecom company do something then they must obviously comply. But these companies chased the big bucks from the NSA as if they were just another customer and sold out everybody else who sends them a monthly check. And sadly, since AT&T controls a lot of the Internet hubs, the data from all of the little ISPs was given over as well, without the consent or knowledge of the smaller companies or their customers.

I fully expect some day that we’ll have a terrible scandal or tragedy involving the ability of our new IoT devices to spy on us. And when that happens there might well be a backlash with people ripping out and stopping their use of the devices. The whole industry needs to realize that a few bad events can spoil the market for all of them, and so it’s my hope that companies that abuse the public trust get exposed by those who do not. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of history of that happening.

3 thoughts on “Trusting Our Digital Universe

  1. Yes, the VW scandal is a tragedy… most especially a tragedy of trust. In somewhat the same way that the Vietnam War and Watergate were tragedies of trust between the populace and the government, the VW scandal proves that corporations will cheat if it is their better interest, and if they believe they will get away with it.

    As for telecom companies, they are under the same bond of trust with its customers. Break that trust, and there will be hell to pay.

    As for IoT, I still question the real need for a dishwasher, or other simple electric appliance, to have Internet connectivity. The repair person definitely should have it; a massive/complex machine such as an airplane or a car should have it; but not a simple appliance machine. Maybe I am too cynical, but I see that connectivity as a supperfluous addition, of de minimus and dubious value, that just serves to jack up the price.
    Quite frankly that connectivity only serves to give hackers access to our appliances and machines, and possibly cause untold problems. A recent story on “60 Minutes” where a hacker took remote control of an automobile in motion proves that probability!!

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