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What is sensory surveillance and why should you care?

  • Last Updated : June 12, 2023
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a cat peering from behind a wooden wall

An interview with Zoho's Chief Evangelist
Part 4

This is part four in a series of interviews about privacy and surveillance. Founder and Principal Analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, Patrick Moorhead, interviewed Zoho's Chief Evangelist, Raju Vagesna. In part one, they talked about how companies that prioritise ad revenue mine their consumers' data. In parts two and three, they addressed the impact of B2B surveillance on consumers and adjunct surveillance, which refers to the way data aggregation tools use third-party software to mine our data.

In this interview, Raju and Pat discuss sensory surveillance, explaining the various online methodologies that observe our every move as we go about our everyday lives.

What is sensory surveillance?

Raju coined this term to refer to surveillance companies that extract data about our human senses. They may have a better sense of your senses than you do! We often don't realise this, but surveillance companies collect data about your vision, smell, hearing, tastes, and even mood—all without your knowledge.

By surveillance companies, do you mean companies that sell "smart" devices that track health data, like smartphones or home automation tools?

Yes. Let's break it down so we can better understand what's going on here.

Vision: Consider the cameras you install at home. Because all that data is being processed in the cloud, companies can know when your kids come home, when your mail is delivered, and even which breed of dog you have. What's more important is that, because facial recognition and artificial intelligence are common in these devices, not only do they know when someone's approaching your door, but also who. They have eyes on you all the time, inside and outside your home.

Audio: Nowadays, you can't buy an electronic device without a small assistant. Phones, speakers, TVs, refrigerators, and even thermostats have built-in microphones. Just as with the camera, you now also have multiple microphones, strategically placed around your home and listening in on your every conversation.

Smell: Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are home essentials now. To fulfil their purpose, they should know what they're waiting for. This also means they know exactly what they're not looking for. Every vapour and gas in your home that the alarm doesn't go off for, like your perfume or the smell of spices you're toasting, is an identifier for you as a person.

Tastes: Whether you're getting your weekly groceries delivered or buying Christmas presents online, they all indicate your tastes and personal preferences. That data is invaluable for targeting you with advertisements.

Mood: Netflix and chill after work? Or catch up on Australian Story with takeaway fish and chips? Data on every show you watch, every website you visit, and every curbside food order you pick up is accessible through routers that track your activity. Even an Uber booking and a late night pizza order can say a lot about the lifestyle you lead and how you are feeling.

Just one of those doesn't seem like much, but when you combine it all together, it becomes clear that these surveillance companies know much more about us than most people would be comfortable with.

As tech enthusiasts, most of us don't consciously avoid these gadgets. I have an Apple Watch, a Samsung Watch, and an Oura Ring as well. Together, they can track my blood pressure, my sleep cycle, my stress levels, and temperature. They provide immense value, but is there a dark side to it all?

Yes, there's a dark side, but we don't notice it. Consider your data as money. Would you be comfortable with random third parties taking your money without your knowledge?

Well, no. I have services to make sure people from the dark web don't steal from me.

That's how most of us think and work. However, we don't see that these surveillance companies are taking our priceless data and selling it to other companies. If we look at data as money, this is a serious threat.

The problem is that people don't treat their own data seriously. Saying "I don't have anything to hide" doesn't make sense, because of course there are personal things you want to hide. We might not notice how much data we're giving up now, but it's like being a frog in a pot that is slowly coming to a boil—the impact will become more significant over time. The fact that people don't realise this in itself is a challenge. For example, everyone has a smart TV nowadays and so now, it's difficult to find a TV in the market—a "dumb" TV, as Raju put it—that doesn't connect to the internet.

Once you connect to the internet, they take screenshots of what you watch, including the ads that play on them. They then send them to their AI engine to analyse your preferences so they can show you more ads in future. This analysis happens at regular intervals as well, so aside from cameras, they watch you through other means, too.

It'd be great to see companies acknowledge surveillance and explain any benefits that might come with it—such as a lower price, but with ads. It's not to say that surveillance is good, but this would show that people aren't aware of it enough. We don't want to be like the boiling frog. Most people want to know what's happening around them and to them. What is Zoho doing in this regard?

Zoho has always been pro-privacy. Our purpose is simple: Treat our customers' data as we'd want our data to be treated. We don't own your data; you do. We won't sell your data, and we won't show you ads. We treat your data with respect.

We've seen some blatant misconduct when it comes to data collection and surveillance, and we feel that we have a moral obligation to educate people on what's going on. That way, they can make educated decisions.

Many companies won't and can't do that for various reasons, but we wanted to take that stance. In the case of sensory surveillance, even though Zoho doesn't have such a consumer product, we know something is going on, and we had to talk about it.

Eventually, whatever happens on the consumer side will show up on the business side as well. For instance, just as TVs send a screenshot of what you watch back to their servers, it's likely that projectors will do the same with business information. Who's to say your business figures won't be leaked without your knowledge?

That's why we think it's important to start thinking about these possibilities and be aware of what's going on.

And that's a wrap! That ends part four of the privacy interview series with Raju and Pat Moorhead. We hope you found this conversation interesting and helpful. Here's a recording of their chat, if you'd like to watch it.

Read part 5 of this interview: The future of digital surveillance

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