Smart or Scary?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Via my friend Lily Bui on the Sensor Journalism Group, I learned that Carnegie Mellon (is planning) to Embed Sensors Across Landscape.

Sounds awesome, but on reading the article I found that…

Google gave Carnegie Mellon $500,000 in seed funding and access to its proprietary technologies in order to start the project, Mr. Dey said.

Uh oh! Google + proprietary technologies != “Don’t do evil”

(Mr. Dey) and his group of researchers will begin the experiment by placing sensors in their own offices and labs, and by 2016 they hope to expand the project to the rest of the campus. The open-platform project

Hmmm… proprietary technologies != open-platform

Security and privacy are top priorities, said Yuvraj Agarwal, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon and one of the project’s researchers. The group will allow users to opt into the system and customize what information they are willing to make available.

Ah, opt-in, opt-out, security, privacy… the generally un-understandable buzzwords that you get drawn into when you are attracted to shiny things. At least from one person's experience it seems that Google Photos may be uploading your pics, even if you don't want it to. From the article…

My phone must have been uploading pictures to Google Photos even though I didn’t even have Google Photos on my phone.

All I had to do to turn my phone into a stealth Google Photos uploader was to turn on the backup sync, then uninstall the app. Whereas one might reasonably believe uninstalling the app from the phone would stop photos from uploading automatically to Google Photos, the device still does it even in the app’s absence. Since making this discovery, I have re-created the issue multiple times in multiple settings on my Galaxy S5.

I chose to uninstall the Google Photos app, an app that is not obviously baked into my phone's Android operating system the way that, say, Android's Calendar app or Gmail are. So a reasonable person would expect none of my photos to ever end up on Google’s web site unless I somehow uploaded them another way. Google Photos is baked into newer phones, meaning the user can't easily uninstall the app.

In my personal case, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that Google had access to pictures of my daughter and used that access to develop information, without my knowledge, about what she looks like and where she spends time.