Certification Survey Extra: Big Brother is watching?
Posted on
August 27, 2020

Certification Survey Extra is a series of periodic dispatches that give added insight into the findings of our most recent Certification Survey. These posts contain previously unpublished Certification Survey data.

Is the ever-expanding Internet of Things a potential tool in the hands of future Big Brother-esque governments?

About a week ago we stumbled across a brief BBC News story with the unexpected and at least somewhat improbable headline "Apple helped make 'top secret' iPod for U.S. government." That would be the very same Apple that has repeatedly and forcefully insisted it will never help law enforcement agencies unlock the iPhones of suspected terrorists and other miscreants.

The headline is incongruous at best, and sounds flat-out contradictory and hypocritical at worst. The story isn't quite as damning of Apple as you'd expect from the headline. Former Apple software engineer David Shayer recently disclosed that he was part of a four-person pod at Apple that helped the U.S. Department of Energy build a special surveillance-capable iPod.

Not surveillance-capable in the sense of recording your private conversations and uploading them to the FBI. Shayer never found out the specific intended use of the gimmicked-up iPod (or dare way say, "spy-Pod") he worked on, but learned enough at the time to guess that it was intended to covertly measure and record levels of radiation.

Shayer worked with two DoE contractors on the project. In his words, "They wanted to add some custom hardware to an iPod and record data from this custom hardware to the iPod's disk in a way that couldn't be easily detected. But it still had to look and work like a normal iPod." A second former Apple employee corroborated Shayer's account.

Throw in a possible alien invasion angle and this is where the music from The X-Files would start to play. (To be fair, you could probably throw an alien invasion angle into just about anything, including a recipe for potato salad, and the X-Files theme music would seem appropriate.) Big Brother isn't yet real to the extent envisioned in 1984, but sometimes it feel like we get a little closer to that every day.

That Apple modified an iPod to (possibly) detect and record radiation levels isn't really the issue. That Apple responded at all to a secret government request to essentially build a modified clone of one of its signature devices ought to be unsettling to everyone. Do you really trust your government to never cross a theoretical line agreed to between itself and Apple? Was there ever even such an agreement in the first place?

How long until Big Brother really is following us home at night?

One thing that may be pushing the world in that direction is the ongoing growth of the Internet of Things. There are numerous reasons why it's convenient to have various devices connected to the internet. But that connection is necessarily two-directional. There's a lot of trust involved, and no one really knows to what extent it could be (or is already) misplaced.

How many people, for example, already have a voice activated personal assistant or smart speaker device in a master bedroom, living room, or dining room of their home? Does Alexa *only* listen when you call her by name? Who better to ask about this than certified computer networking professionals?

That's what did in our recently completed Computer Networking Certification Survey. To what extent do certified networking professionals worry about the Internet of Things becoming the Internet of Knowing Everything About You? Here's what we learned:

Q: As a certified networking professional, how concerned are you about surveillance vectors presented by the Internet of Things?

Very Concerned — 56.8 percent
Concerned — 30.2 percent
Somewhat Concerned — 8.6 percent
Not at All Concerned — 4.3 percent

This one is a serious issue for almost everyone who participated in the survey. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed are either very concerned or concerned about the possibility that the Internet of Things is opening a whole lot of windows that look directly into people's private lives.

That of course doesn't mean that we're already living in a police state where there are no secrets and everything we do is being watched. Far from it.  Any degree of movement in that direction, on the other hand, should make us all stop and think. Convenience is only desirable up to a point.

About the Author

Certification Magazine was launched in 1999 and remained in print until mid-2008. Publication was restarted on a quarterly basis in February 2014. Subscribe to CertMag here.

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