About Those Objects that Watch
5th March, 2020 | Biometric Privacy | Entropic
In our last article, we discussed the frontiers on which consumer smart devices are evolving, with the goal of increasing the surveillance resolution they have over individuals.
In this article, we'll focus on covert consumer surveillance devices - ones that are developed exclusively for the surreptitious surveillance of individuals.
What is A Covert Consumer Surveillance Device?
A covert consumer surveillance device is designed for convenient, surreptitious surveillance and data gathering. They are relatively inexpensive, are creatively designed to blend into their environment, can be remotely controlled and viewed, and can operate autonomously for an extended period of time.
We differentiate these devices from more advanced surveillance equipment developed for government or corporate surveillance, since they lack advanced features, are openly available for purchase, and are likely more physically recognizable by the general public. This does not preclude the use of these devices however, by the above entities. We also differentiate these devices from consumer smart devices, which are mostly not marketed with the singular purpose of surreptitious surveillance of individuals, though this is commonly a by-product of their design, and an organization's centralized storage of personal information.
Some covert consumer surveillance devices are miniaturized, which makes them difficult to see. Others are designed to look like everyday trusted household devices that, while clearly visible, generally won't trigger suspicion with the people who are being monitored. In some cases, devices meet both of these criteria, as illustrated with the "screw camera" below.
Several factors over the past 15 years, including the increase in global travel, the explosion of the home-stay industry, combined with the decreasing costs of covert surveillance devices, have resulted in an increase in the surreptitious surveillance of individuals in rentals, home-stays, hotels, conference rooms, and other public areas.
At the time of writing, these devices are openly available on major e-commerce sites such as Amazon & eBay, with an advertised purpose ranging from monitoring your rental property, or your housekeeper, through to blatant surreptitious filming of people in more private settings, such as their bedroom.
What Do Covert Surveillance Devices Look Like?
The devices are developed with the intention of blending into their environment. A device that blends in, or is trusted will likely be able to have a better vantage point for surveillance.
Aside from miniaturizing their design, there is a constant push to innovate surveillance devices with new, previously unseen form factors that can go unnoticed. This means they can look like any object that might be commonly expected in it's deployed environment.
Some examples of this are clocks, DVR's, sunglasses, toys, badges, shavers, clothes hooks, lighters, pens, toys, smoke alarms, wall chargers, screws, battery banks, and more.
This can also include designs that are copies, or modifications of existing trusted brands, such as coffee makers, fans, and clock radios, complete with their original brand name stamped on the device.
The following table summarizes the characteristics of covert consumer surveillance devices.
The percentages are derived from a sample set of 400 covert consumer surveillance devices spanning 40 unique form factors, researched by Entropic Labs. These devices mostly originate from southern Guangdong province in China, primarily Shenzhen, and are currently for sale on major global online shopping sites. Please note that these numbers are subject to change over time, as more/new devices are analyzed, and existing investigations are updated.
When reviewing this table, keep in mind that covert consumer surveillance devices have existed for decades. Many even before the inception of the Internet. The youthful term "Internet of Things" leads to an unfortunate assumption that sometimes includes these devices, but cannot since many of them don't have intelligent capabilities, and aren't network connected.
In our next article, we'll cover the current methods of detecting covert surveillance devices, along with their strengths and weaknesses, based on the devices that are currently available.
In the context of privacy, decentralization of data as it is gathered, transferred and stored, is key to evolving the current mess of concentrated, vulnerable information that has collected over the past few decades. When it comes to processing infrastructure however, some centralization is desirable, as discussed in this article originally posted by Vlad Andrei at Albaron Ventures.
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