Data privacy is a growing concern around the world. In the wake of scandals involving smart devices such as Amazon's Ring cameras exposing our bedrooms to peeping Toms, people have begun to realize how vulnerable we are -- even in our own homes. Our data is monitored, manipulated, harvested and stolen. Alarmingly, patterns around patents filed by tech titans reveal the threat is only about to become more acute.
Patents offer a strong insight into a company's plans. While not all patents ultimately yield products that are offered in the market, they reflect a company's thinking at least in terms of concepts and technologies that may be useful, valuable, or profitable in the future. So we should view the patent filings of the likes of Google and Amazon with concern.
Google has a patent for a "smart home system that auto-implements select household policies based on sensed observations." In other words, Google wants to not only monitor your home, but to enforce actions based on the data it gathers. That is convenient if the alarm clock sounds at 7:00 AM every morning and triggers the curtains opening. But it starts to raise the specter of Big Brother-like surveillance if Google is constantly watching and listening and sensing us in our homes. Carrying out this patent would require Google to observe our personal home activities around the clock. And that's exactly what they want.
This is already the case with Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa, which listens to us 24/7 for her cue: "Hey Alexa". Amazon has patented a new version of Alexa, which is now built-in to their vast line of at-home smart speakers and on-the-go wearables. The patent suggested that Alexa can automatically detect your emotions based on your speech patterns and suggest things to do, watch, or purchase.
The patent also shares an example of a woman that is sniffling while speaking; after recognizing the user is ill, Alexa can suggest some chicken soup to soothe her cold, and then offer to order cough drops on Amazon. This is based not on what the user said, but how the user said it. Alexa really knows you.
Last year, Amazon also gained a patent for an "unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that performs surveillance at a property defined by a geo-fence." Translation? Surveillance-as-a-service. Don't be deceived, when Amazon wants to fly your latest purchase to your doorstep to make delivery times quicker, it will likely be gathering data on you and your neighbors as it records routine activities. Who is having a barbecue, mowing the grass, walking the dog -- anything to hoover up data?
As new controversial technologies, such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence, are fused with smart devices, it is important to circle back on the broader implications to our personal privacy. If we don't, we may default into a global surveillance state.
Raising the alarm
There are signs people are starting to worry about the tech giants' intentions. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study: "Some 81% of the public say that the potential risks they face because of data collection by companies outweigh the benefits."
Amnesty International has also sounded the alarm over the companies' brand of "surveillance capitalism" -- -- the offering of free services to collect detailed user behavior data, often without explicit user consent. The human rights group issued a report calling for a radical transformation of the tech giants' core business model. "Facebook and Google's omnipresent surveillance of billions of people poses a systemic threat to human rights," Amnesty said.
Your home is spying on you
Today, the average American owns eight smart devices that can connect to the Internet, gather data, and communicate with its owner. Smart devices, such as cameras, thermostats, lights, and locks, are being installed into the most intimate spaces of our homes at a blistering rate. On average, a new smart light bulb will be installed every second in 2020.
But the surveillance problem is magnified when it comes to smart devices that can see, hear, and sense us in our most private settings. The monitoring we experience when we browse, shop, and socialize online is now entering into our homes, where the stakes are much higher. In the eyes of big tech, after you pay for a smart device, you become the product because they seek to benefit from the data you generate.
The creep of surveillance into our homes and neighborhoods is threatening our fundamental right to freedom and privacy for individuals, as well as society as a whole. However, it's not too late to take back control of our data, identity, and privacy. Even if tech giants do not want to develop privacy protections, it is technology itself that can transform the surveillance capitalism business model.
It is perfectly feasible to buy products that protect privacy while retaining the convenience and efficiency we have all come to expect from our many smart devices. Consumers need a choice, and blockchain technology can deliver it. If you want to have security at your front door with a camera, why should the data uploaded to the device then become the property of Amazon? Instead, consumers can buy alternative products that purposefully distribute any data collected in a decentralized way using blockchain.
In this way, no third party -- Amazon or otherwise -- can control that information. Consumers are able to own their data and control who they choose to share the data with -- or not. If I want to assist police investigating a crime, I can opt to share my home-security camera data. If I choose to share my exercise and health information from an activity tracker, such as Fitbit, I can. The point is -- as a consumer that should be my choice, right.
As it is, the corporations selling the devices own and control your data. And sadly, the tech giants' patent filings give no indication they care to research and develop devices that will put data in consumers' hands.
Consumers are increasingly aware of their vulnerability and must use their purchasing power to demand alternatives. We need the IoT industry to become the Internet of Trusted Things. This means we must have trusted data, trusted devices and trusted processes to ensure consumers -- not the giant corporations -- have a choice over how to control their data privacy.
(Raullen Chai is CEO of IoTeX, a Silicon Valley technology company that develops privacy-protecting smart devices by combining blockchain with secure hardware.)
This article originally appeared in IBTimes.com.