Ana Veciana-Suarez

Don’t turn on that gadget. It’s probably spying on you


I love my microwave, love it for its usefulness and its speed, for its diversity — mine doubles as a convection oven — but our relationship isn’t what it used to be.

I can say the same thing about my smart TV. It’s got all kinds of wonderful features, but I don’t trust it.

I’m also highly suspicious of my cell phone. And my thermostat. And my computer. And pretty much anything that has made my life so easy to organize and automate.

If you, like me, have been reading about this era of high tech surveillance, you can’t help but get paranoid about your favorite gadgets and appliances. Sure, we can try to limit what Big Brother learns about us and our preferences, but such actions do little to feed the hungry maw that is marketing. Or government.

This is the Brave (and Scary) New World of spying. We have traded in privacy for convenience.

Forget the ridiculous and unfounded charge that President Trump leveled at his predecessor about wiretapping Trump Tower. Such is the stuff of delusions, and there are plenty of those going around in Washington. Yet, it is not difficult to imagine some nefarious government agency or corporate entity collecting streams of data about our movements and habits.

Long before there was an Edward Snowden scaring us with details about the massive reach of NSA surveillance, it was impossible to Google any product or store website without subsequently being bombarded with matching ads. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the cookies we leave behind during our browsing. (Nothing to munch at.) Or the “surveys” we take in exchange for gift cards. Or the loyalty rewards I love so much. All are just another way for retailers to gather data, the better to track us.

Hot new devices, with their fashionable membership in the Internet of Things, are probably the worst offenders. That Amazon Echo you showed off to your friends at Christmas? It may be as much a double agent as it is a voice-activated electronic assistant.

Unless you’re a hermit and a Luddite and participate in cash-only transactions, marketers know more about your retail habits than your mother does. Don’t think for a moment that you can diminish or erase your digital footprint, either.

Consider some of the latest (and varied) examples that will force you to cover your computer monitor’s webcam, as I did: In January the FTC announced it was looking into complaints about certain Genesis Toys spying on children. Worried parents and advocates claim i-Que and My Friend Cayla, these cute internet-connected playthings, allow strangers — and advertisers — to speak directly to children. The Federal Network Agency, a German regulator, has already banned Cayla outright, indicating it was essentially a spying device.

Then in February the Federal Trade Commission fined the manufacturer of Vizio television $2.2 million for collecting viewing data on its consumers without warning them. A Vizio TV could see and hear its owners even when it was turned off. Samsung recently admitted to doing something similar, too. And last month sex toy maker We-Vibe agreed to pay customers a nice chunk of change after selling them "smart" vibrators that tracked owners’ use without their knowledge. This was prompted by a class-action lawsuit filed in an Illinois federal court.

I’m creeped out about all this, yet find myself too attached to the very things that are watching me. About the only comfort I’ve managed to find while researching this column is small consolation indeed: microwaves don’t seem to be equipped to participate in this spy fest — at least not yet. For now I can warm up leftovers without worry.