Is Your Toothbrush Spying on You?: Musings on the "Internet of Things"

Are you safe?

The Internet of Things or IoT is here, and it’s already way bigger than you think. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, think of it this way: where once we thought of the internet as a space we accessed through our phones and computers, we now know it has expanded well beyond screens and entrenched itself deeply into the physical world of everyday things. Sometimes called M2M (machine to machine communication), this technology refers to the way that objects with embedded devices like sensors and transmitters and processors are connected with each other as part of a vast infrastructure. Think about tracking the Uber car from your mobile device, or turning on your thermostat from your iphone.  Apple watches, Fitbits, house speakers, refrigerators, cars, cameras, pens, water meters, and well, just about anything and everything could be part of the mix. And if it’s not part of the IoT today, it probably will be tomorrow.

Take the Kolibree Toothbrush, which is making “toothbrush intelligence” an actual thing. This bluetooth enabled toothbrush has sensors which record “quantitative and qualitative” data about your brushing habits so you can have optimal oral hygiene:

Or the Samsung smart refrigerator that tells you what groceries you are running low on (I am sure it will soon place your grocery order, seriously!)
There is no doubt that this ultra-connected reality is convenient and impressive in so many ways. I love that I can be on a holiday in Mexico and control the lights in my Vancouver house, or get an alert in real time if someone rings the doorbell. I enjoy having a fitness tracker that will remind me if I have been sedentary for too long during the work day. And I think it’s cool that when I get into my car each morning my phone automatically tells me how long the commute is going to be that day. And the list goes on. My oldest daughter is at university. How awesome that we can facetime or text or that I can read over her rough draft on a Google Doc as she is editing it. And if I really want to know what’s going on across town in that cordoned off area with all the heavy duty equipment going in and out, I know I can buy a reasonably inexpensive drone at Best Buy and get real time footage for myself.

But as we revel in the awesomeness of it all, please let’s not forget the human element. As M2M becomes more and more real, so too is the need to value the people that are the users and consumers.

What would you say if I told you that while you were watching your TV, your TV was also watching you? Sadly, this is no science fiction. Beginning in 2014, Vizio Smart TV’s were secretly tracking what their customers watched, second by second, household by household, and transmitting this data back to their servers so that they could then sell this information to third parties. And consumers had no idea.

I write this post after spending two days listening to and engaging with thought leaders in the area of “privacy and security.” It used to be so easy when we could store our records inside a locked filing cabinet, in a locked room, in a secure building, and feel “safe.” It was a simple matter of securing the “perimeter.” But today’s digital reality makes it increasingly difficult to even identify a perimeter.

So, as we take advantage of the Internet of Things and an increasingly networked reality, let us too be “smart.” Can you imagine a hacker getting access to your toothbrush, watch, cameras, car, house, fridge, phone, on-line accounts, etc. because you used “password” as your password? Or because you were simply too trusting?

A few months back the University of Calgary got hacked with ransomware. Valuable faculty and staff email data and records - including research, became inaccessible. The university actually paid more than 20k in ransom to get access back.

The world is changing everyday, and the IoT is a big part of that shift, but as we reap the rewards of mass interconnectivity, we must not let ourselves, our humanity, our sense of what is right and decent and proper, get lost in a conversation we don’t even know is happening. M2M communication and the IoT are here to stay. It is a technology infrastructure that sometimes looks and feels like magic, and we have all benefitted in some way. And we will continue to do so. But please, be aware of the risks and the trade-offs, and remember, that we too have an obligation to be “smart.”

Sean Nosek


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