Intelligence chief admits Internet of Things can be used for government surveillance

The US director of national intelligence has said connected home devices can be used for monitoring and tracking

The current director of national intelligence in the US has said that intelligence agencies may use smart household devices to extend the reach of government surveillance.

During testimony to the Senate as part of an annual “assessment of threats” facing the US, James Clapper acknowledged that the Internet of Things (IoT) could offer a new means to track and monitor citizens.

“In the future, intelligence services might use the [Internet of Things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” Clapper said, as reported by The Guardian.

Clapper did not name specific government agencies, nor did he name specific IoT devices, but his comments chime with a recent study by Harvard’s Berkman Center. That study concluded new technologies laden with sensors, “from televisions and toasters to bed sheets, light bulbs, cameras, toothbrushes, door locks, cars, watches and other wearables”, will offer the government new ways to conduct surveillance.

Clapper’s comments add a substantial amount of weight to talk about the potential for both governments and private companies to glean information from the network of connected devices. As the commercial success of these devices in part relies on an element of trust between people and companies, the onus is therefore on those companies to make the IoT as secure and transparent as possible. 

In terms of transparency, however, the open nature of Clapper’s comments brings an interesting element into play. Perhaps the government wants people to know their smart devices are subject to surveillance, at least to the extent that it introduces a panopticon dynamic to our homes. As with Jeremy Bentham’s concept for a prison, the idea may be that we correct our behaviour when we live under the threat of observation. Of course, that model hinges on a much wider rollout of smart devices in our homes and cities – one where it becomes relatively impossible to avoid the IoT.

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