Privacy problems loom in an interconnected world

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The federal Attorney-General’s office has launched a review of Australia’s privacy laws, with a particular focus on the collection, use and disclosure of our personal information.

No doubt, the practices of large tech companies such as Google and Facebook, whose businesses are built on harvesting and selling personal data, will be the focus of the review.

With so many Australians owning web-connected devices, we need to be more aware of how our privacy can be breached.

While updating privacy laws is welcome, it can only go so far. In an age where more and more devices are connected to the internet, many Australians are unwittingly broadcasting their private lives to the world.

Frighteningly, you don’t have to have spent hours honing your skills as a hacker to peek into the private lives of unsuspecting people. You just need to know where to look.

Take for example Shodan. Shodan is a search engine for the internet of things. It searches any devices that are connected to the internet. That includes devices such as internet-connected baby monitors, security cameras and webcams.

With the use of search terms, anyone can find unsecured devices on the internet. It’s even possible to specify that you want to see devices with screenshots or webcams.

For example, I ran a search for any device in Australia that had taken a screenshot. On the first results page, I found a picture of man sleeping in his bed.

The shot was taken on the morning of 28 October. To be precise, it was at 2:21 and 13 seconds, since the time code was watermarked on the image.

If I wanted to dig deeper, I could find out the manufacturer of the device and try to access it using the default administrator username and password. I could potentially lock him out of his own device – or spy on him in his bedroom in real time.

This is not an isolated case. I have seen shots peering over a man’s shoulder seated on his patio and the view of a Gold Coast living room with water views.

Ironically, many of us purchase security cameras hoping that they make us more secure. But many have little or no security – or were never configured properly in the first place. They are broadcasting whatever is in their line of sight to the world on the open internet.

What’s more disturbing is that I’m no hacker. Nor did I break any laws. The security on these devices is so poor that you don’t need to break complex encryption or break digital trespass laws to get such information.

Neither are the people behind Shodan breaking any laws or doing anything nefarious. In fact, search engines like Shodan are doing a service identifying security flaws so that they might be patched.

The problem is that our understandings of security and privacy are lagging behind our hyperconnected world. And with around 31 billion devices currently connected to the internet – a number that is predicted to rise to 75 billion by 2025 – the privacy issue likely to get worse.

If we value personal privacy, we not only have to get the legislative settings right, but start to take a more active role in making sure we know what we’re sending out online.

Christopher Scanlon is a senior lecturer in communication at Deakin University.

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