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Even cacti have eyes: The random things surveilling our everyday lives

Your every move online is tracked. In the era of smart homes and smart cities, everyday objects are starting to keep tabs on you too.

Even cacti have eyes: The random things surveilling our everyday lives
[Photo: David Oliver/Getty Images]

This story is part of The Privacy Divide, a series that explores the fault lines and disparities–economic, cultural, philosophical–that have developed around digital privacy and its impact on society.

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Last month, Singapore Airlines was caught secretly recording the phone screens of consumers using their app. Then, a traveler discovered that the airline also had cameras embedded in the in-flight entertainment systems on the back of every chair. Journalists then discovered that the creep of seat-back surveillance wasn’t confined to Singapore: Other airlines including United and Delta have installed cameras on their seats too.

Increasingly it’s not just consumer technology that’s spying on us: It’s the normal objects lying all around us. The airplane entertainment systems are just one of many things that—thanks in part to ever cheaper, smaller hardware—are being built with cameras and microphones already embedded. While the airlines have claimed they have never used the cameras, there’s always the option to turn them on. And in a world of lax privacy rules where companies tend to invade your privacy as much as they can, it’s an indication of the direction of the surveillance economy. Companies are quickly moving from the digital terrain into the physical world, with the goal of collecting ever more information about you so they can monetize it.

Many of us bring seemingly innocuous objects like connected thermostats and speakers into our kitchens and bedrooms, without realizing how much they might be observing us (and our neighbors) and reporting back to the mothership in the cloud. But growing surveillance in public complicates our typical, if already broken relationship with data collection, whereby companies and governments ask for our consent. As Lilian Edwards, a U.K.-based digital researcher, wrote in a 2015 paper, “While consumers may at least have theoretically had a chance to read the privacy policy of their Nest thermostat before signing the contract, they will have no such opportunity in any real sense when their data is collected by the smart road or smart tram they go to work on, or as they pass the smart dustbin.”

Here’s a sampling of the random objects keeping tabs on you out in public:

Road signs, billboards, and the street

The second you step outside your home, you’re technically in public space. But while it might not feel like someone is watching your every move, someone most certainly is–especially the government. Beyond the CCTV cameras that dot street intersections and the sides of buildings across the country, cameras and other means of surveillance are hidden in a wide variety of other objects that seems like a normal party of the cityscape.

You know those digital road signs that show you how fast you’re driving? As Quartz reports, some of them are embedded with license plate readers as part of a decade-old Drug Enforcement Administration program. (The DEA and ICE also have secretly embedded cameras into street lights and those big orange traffic barrels.) Even the roadside scenery isn’t safe. Ars Technica found that one Arizona town mounted dozens of license plate readers inside fake cactuses.

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[Photo: Ron Clausen/Wikimedia Commons]
Slightly more visible license plate readers can be seen mounted on police cruisers, streetlights, and even private vehicles, which law enforcement and repossession agents use to compile billions of records of vehicles’ locations. Privacy advocates warn that the technology could also be used to build detailed portraits of non-criminal suspects, including their attendance at gun shows or political demonstrations.

[Photo: Mike Katz-Lacabe]
Face recognition software, which is quietly being paired with high-definition street-level CCTV cameras, has raised similar surveillance alarms about the ability to track people in public. Racial justice and civil rights groups worry in particular about the impact of this kind of monitoring, arguing that face recognition exacerbates existing biases and disproportionately impacts vulnerable minority communities.

A more hidden form of law enforcement tracking involves using hidden Stingrays—or ISMI catchers, or “cell-site simulator” devices—designed to intercept all nearby mobile phone traffic, in order to track suspects. The devices have been ruled unconstitutional in several states, but they are designed to be undetectable: They can be as small as a cell phone, concealed as part of a cell tower, or inside a police vehicle. Their use is growing beyond law enforcement too: A number of mysterious entities are reportedly using them around D.C. to intercept the phone calls of government officials, including President Trump.

It’s not just law enforcement or the government. Advertisers are also tracking you when you’re on the street as you walk or drive by their billboards. According to the New York Times, some billboards are embedded with cameras to collect data on who’s nearby. One large billboard company, Clear Channel Outdoor America, offers a service that tracks people’s travel patterns so that it can roughly identify the age and gender of the people that will be likely to see a certain billboard, based on its location (the company doesn’t offer many privacy assurances, instead saying that it’s using the same data that mobile advertisers have for years). It’s only a matter of time before most advertisements in real life are tracking you the way digital ones do.

Freezers at the pharmacy

Modern pharmacies are mostly low-tech places, with shelves full of products and humans who dispense prescription medicine. But Walgreens is trying to move into the digital future by tracking its customers just like tech companies do online. How? By installing doors covered in digital screens in the freezer aisle that are equipped with sensors that can detect your gender, your general age range, what products you’re looking at, how long you’re standing there, and even what your emotional response is to a particular product.

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[Image: Cooler Screens]
Then, the company that makes the door, Cooler Screens, can use that information to serve you targeted ads that show up as you’re walking past the freezer doors.

A man, for instance, might see a Coke Zero ad while a woman may see an ad for Diet Coke. Based on what it knows, the freezer could also offer you unique offers, too. “You could pass by the beer door, and [the door] may notice that you’re picking up a six-pack of Miller Coors,” Cooler Screens CEO and cofounder Arsen Avakian told me. “It’s 4 p.m., so it’s near dinnertime. [It might] offer to you, buy a DiGiorno pizza for a special price if you’re buying a six-pack of Miller Coors.”

The company says it does not store data or tie information to customer profiles unless you opt in. But it’s a far bigger problem that the doors’ design don’t indicate that they’re analyzing your every move. The only way to opt out is to not enter the store in the first place.


Related: Your TV knows you better than you think


Tracked out on the town

Sensors and cameras are everywhere, from your home to the street to the pharmacy but they’re also prevalent in entertainment venues. It’s common practice for stadiums to track fans’ behavior, but a number of concerts in the past year have taken that kind of surveillance to new levels. In China, police have used facial recognition technology at the pre-concert security checks for Chinese pop star Jacky Cheung to apprehend fugitives who came to see him sing. And to root out stalkers, Taylor Swift’s security team recently installed cameras equipped with facial recognition software inside the selfie booths at her Reputation tour.

[Photo: Flickr user Julio Enriquez]
The technology came from a company called ISM Connect, which says that any faces that don’t match a group of individuals that were determined would cause a threat to Swift and her fans are not stored. The company says there were signs informing people that they might be recorded–signs that will likely become increasingly common.

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Some jurisdictions are trying to require businesses to post explicit warnings when deploying face recognition. Last year a New York City councilman proposed a bill that would require posted notices when face recognition is in use. Illinois, Texas, and Washington already prohibit the collection of biometric data without informed consent.

But disclosures don’t work online, and there are few reasons to think that they’d work IRL–whether that’s out and about in a camera-laden smart city, in stadiums, or in your local pharmacy. The question remains: Will people realize that they’re giving up their privacy in the physical world as easily as they are online? And when freezers and selfie booths and doorbells and in-flight entertainment systems and billboards are all tracking you, how exactly do opt out?

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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