Four Seemingly Harmless Gizmos That Are Definitely Tracking Your Every Move
We’re living in a world where your every word, smile and furtive scratch might be recorded forever through unseen means. Many people are fine with that. There are some advantages to putting tracking chips in your socks (to discover the exact address of the suction dimension that steals them), and in some ways, a connected world beats the old one, where no one had any way to reach you unless you were in earshot.
Still, we think even the most passionately digital folks out there will feel a little uncomfortable upon learning that...
A Sex Toy Secretly Recorded How Customers Used It
A Canadian sex toymaker came out with a vibrator called We-Vibe a decade ago, and it was one of the first vibrators to be controlled remotely by Bluetooth or through an app. Insert the We-Vibe into your orifice of choice, and your partner away on a business trip could dispense with the usual practice of simply cheating on you and instead use the app to control your vibrator’s intensity. Nowadays, of course, remote vibrators are common, and we assume most people reading this are using one this very second. But before people worked out best practices, the We-Vibe used an unsecured connection, which meant just about anyone with the right knowhow could take over control.
Hackers revealed this vulnerability at a 2016 conference. Taking over a vibrator in this matter, argued the hackers, could qualify as sexual assault, a subject in which tech bros are experts. And while we have no confirmed cases of people at the time feeling their We-Vibes switch to the ill-advised turbo mode for some stranger's amusement, we did have confirmation about other issues with the device. The company was recording each customer’s usage, including what temperature they favored and what intensity they picked. If no specific law banned collecting those specific intimate details, it was only because no one had previously considered this possibility.
The violation was so serious that customers won a class-action lawsuit. Anyone who bought the device was entitled to a payment beyond what the device had cost, even if they never used the wireless features. If they did use the wireless features, they were entitled to $10,000 each. A revised version of We-Vibe remains on sale today, and it receives rave reviews from sites whose entire model involves giving products rave reviews.
Printers Add Invisible Dots Labeling Your Pages
When your printer runs out of yellow ink, it will refuse to print, even if you’re just asking it to spit out a black-and-white document. Is this because printer manufacturers are evil and want to force you into buying more ink through any means available? That’s surely a factor, but another factor is that no matter what you print, even if your document has no color at all, your printer may also add some tiny yellow dots.
You won’t notice the dots. Even if you do notice them, you won’t be able to tell what they say because they’re communicating in code. These microdots reveal the date and time at which you printed the document, and they include a serial number that uniquely ties the page to your personal printer.
If this text were visible to you (though printed lightly, to avoid marring all that beautiful ASCII art you’re printing), it would be there for your sake. You could look at the label, just as you look up the metadata on every digital photo you take. But you can’t see the dots, you have no idea what they mean even if you spot them and printers were using them for decades before the public had any idea they existed. The most reasonable explanation is they’re there as a tool to help law enforcement track documents’ origins, and one unconfirmed theory says the FBI used these dots to track down the whistleblower Reality Winner.
We could recommend then that if you don’t want anyone to tie your printouts to your printer, go use the printer at Staples or something. Only, that’s a terrible idea — everything you print there is surely recorded and tied to you even more directly. The whole reason anyone still has a personal printer of their own is for when they need to print things they’re too embarrassed to ever be associated with, which is what makes this dotty violation so crushing.
Planes with Cameras Are Photographing American Cities
Satellite imagery can show you what just about anywhere on Earth looks like from above, including every nook and cranny of your own neighborhood. But while those photos might catch you in an awkward moment, with just some shoddy blur obscuring your identity, they can’t track your movements throughout your day. They’re just a static collection of images, not a worldwide video.
A company called Persistent Surveillance came out with a solution for that shortcoming, however. The pitch was: “Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability.” That sounds like some tech company offering more than they could ever deliver. Unfortunately, the product is real.
Rather than satellites, the service uses low-flying airplanes that each have a collection of cameras. The planes continuously sweep over a city, to map everyone’s movements and activity. The company invented the first version of the tech for the military in 2006 and called it Angel Fire. That name makes people of a certain age think of adorable homemade websites, but if you don’t think about that, the name sounds really cool, they swear.
The cameras aren’t powerful enough to grab people’s faces or license plates, but the images it does capture, recorded continuously and stored permanently, were enough to reveal way too much about every single resident, without any kind of warrant justifying the surveillance. Baltimore implemented Persistent Surveillance, as did St. Louis, without initially revealing anything to the public. Then in 2021, both cities voted to drop it. Pretty much everyone in either place who heard about the program opposed it, and we encourage you to do the same if Persistent Surveillance ever comes your way. “We don’t want to be like the fictional Britain in 1984,” you might say. “Or the real Britain in 2023. We’re better than that.”
A Fitness App Revealed the Locations of Secret Bases
Fitness apps are usually quite upfront about recording your location, advertising this as a feature. Tracking lets you note with pride all the vast distances you’ve traversed, paths that you carefully engineered to depict a giant dong. But what happens when an app publicizes all this location data — not tying it to specific users but just showing where people worldwide like to jog?
In 2017, the fitness tracker Strava released such a map. It was fun to take a look and see which places have the most active people and what sort of routes people like. Then people zoomed in on some areas with unusual activity, like Afghanistan. Few locals used Strava, but U.S. military personnel did. Look at the Strava heatmap, and you’d fairly easily identify forward-operating bases, whose locations were otherwise not disclosed anywhere. Know how we said earlier that satellite photos show you “just about” anywhere on Earth? Even those do not show these bases, but the Strava map did.
We can only assume that the Strava leak ultimately led to the end of the War in Afghanistan. It also revealed a few other military secrets. Look over at Area 51, and the map showed someone riding a bicycle around the facility. That couldn’t be an airman. No honest airman rides a bicycle. Who could that really be trying to bike their way out of government clutches?