Dr. Pippa Malmgren: The New Cold War – It’s In Your Fridge

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Prior to the COVID lockdown and well before the tanks rolled into Ukraine, I was trying to help audiences understand the nature of the evolving conflict among the superpowers. But, people didn’t feel the superpowers were in a true confrontation. They were careful to keep their confrontations out of the public eye. These confrontations happened in space, on and under the high seas, and in the realm of data. This is now becoming more visible.

by Dr. Pippa Malmgren on Dr. Pippa’s Pen & Podcast:

The data space becomes visible to the public when there are stories of hackers. Often these hackers are state-sponsored, but the direct ties to the state sponsor are sufficiently removed that it becomes impossible to accuse a state of the hack formally. Alongside all this is the murky world of simply using modern tech to gather data on individuals and whole populations. Most individuals do not think they are a target. You’d have to be a government official or a spy or a military person to warrant being targeted by a foreign state, right? Wrong. We live in a world where the superpowers have been competing for control over physical assets – raw materials, food, water – but also over tech – software, algorithms, and inside information about tech innovation from biology to submarine propulsion systems to quantum satellite systems. In many cases in recent years, for example, we’ve seen the Chinese outbid Westerners for corporate assets by small amounts or just enough to beat all the competition. How did they know what the other bidders would submit and thus offer just a little more? Let’s just say it wasn’t a wild guess. It’s because it is so easy to know. You don’t even have to hack your emails. You can simply listen and hear what someone says at home. Intelligence gathering is increasingly happening through electronics and electronic appliances. Your smart-chip-enabled fridge is the new front in this Cold War battle zone

First, how does this data-gathering work? The new smart fridges have cameras and increasingly microphones. More and more, these appliances will connect to your smartphone, which is itself a listening device. The darling of CES this year was Matter, the new “open-source interoperability standard,” which was named the “best in show”. It’s the “new smart home standard” “formerly known as Project Chip”. It’s a partnership between “Apple, Google, Samsung, Amazon, and others” and interfacing with “Amazon Alexa, Samsung SmartThings, Apple Home, Google Home,” and more. It will be “as standard as WIFI or Bluetooth.” You’ll be unlocking and locking your doors with it via Lockly, dimming your lights with it via Leviton, and managing your temperature, blinds, lights, plugs, and switches with it through Echo, Eero, and Alexa.

The commercial purpose of your smart matter-enabled fridge is to monitor your use and to identify what you buy and use. The story is that fridges increasingly can order new milk when the system detects that you are low or when the use-by date has passed The reality is that your data feed from your fridge may not be secure. In fact, we know that nobody changes the factory settings on these things, so all this data is easily accessible to whoever wants it. So, hackers or state-backed hackers can get into your fridge and basically listen to your kitchen conversations. But hacking might not even be necessary.

Well, you say, who would want to listen to my kitchen conversation? Well, I say, if you are an accountant, a lawyer, a banker, an investment banker, or a fund manager, you probably have exactly the sort of information about the deals that matter most. Or, let’s say you work for a security firm, and someone wants to know the movements of who or what you are guarding. Or, perhaps, you work in a mining company, and someone wants to know about your geologist’s reports. The list is endless.  If a state wants to outbid competitors for a port in Africa for an agribusiness in Latin America, the people with the greatest insight are the target. That’s not the government officials. That’s the people working on the deal.

If this hasn’t occurred to you, don’t worry. This game has become so sophisticated that even the British Intelligence Services were recently taken by surprise to find the cars they use to ferry around diplomats (who are often spies) were laden with tracking devices. That’s very useful information. They found the trackers when they did a “surgical search” and opened sealed parts that had been imported from China. What they found in these devices confirmed “disturbing things.”  But, what’s even better is being privy to the conversations government officials or corporate management have on their smartphones in their kitchens in the proximity of other Internet of Things devices. Then you get the real story. All this brings new meaning to my argument that we are in A Hot War in Cold Places. The fridge is the new spy. Who needs James Bond when you can have a Samsung?

Still, you may say, but I have nothing to hide. Well, notice that China seems to be maintaining over 1000 police stations outside of China. CNN reports that these police stations are being used “to monitor, harass and in some cases repatriate Chinese citizens living in exile, using bilateral security arrangements struck with countries in Europe and Africa to gain a widespread presence internationally.” In other words, you may become vulnerable because you have relatives in China or some other country and threats to them becomes a means of getting you to supply information. Modern recruiting of informants and spies is all about getting people into compromised positions. There’s no easier way to do this than to track personal movements and conversations. Welcome to a world where superpowers use “extrajudicial means to reach targets.” It turns out that sports betting companies and firms that make controls for electronic appliances like tea kettles have been especially targeted lately.

Tea kettles, you say? Yes, back in 2016, there was a fascinating cyber hack using tea kettles. Tea kettles were used to launch a mass cyberattack (the Mirai virus) that took down a number of servers at Twitter, Spotify, Pinterest, and others by using the factory settings, which nobody ever bothers to change. That same year a hacker showed that a tea kettle could easily be used to isolate the passwords for your wifi and servers in your home. The Atlantic created a fake IOT toaster and found that it was compromised within an hour! All this was years ago. The game of using smart devices as weapons in the new Cold War has only advanced since then. The Killer Kettles are here to stay.

My question is, what happens as we swallow robotics in pills that monitor us from the inside? The benefits are huge. Look at Rani Therapeutics, “a clinical-stage biotech developing a swallowable, auto-injecting pill that navigates to the gastrointestinal tract where there “are no sharp pain receptors” and releases medication into the intestinal wall using a microneedle.” Or, consider the possibility that the nanorobotic can detect your cancer before it even begins simply by clocking that your protein levels are rising. But can it/you be hacked? Can this robotic or its data flow be used against you? Will it totally compromise your privacy by revealing exactly where you are, what you eat, and how well (or not) you are?

The new Cold War, like the old one, involves spying. We’ve seen an uptick in spying headlines lately. Russia’s undercover spies in places like Scandinaviahave suddenly popped into the public eye. But IoT devices are vastly better at spying than humans. Common stalkers and criminals are using these methods too. A sex offender in the UK recently became the first person to be convicted for using an Amazon device, Alexa, to track and spy on his victim. He surreptitiously listened to her conversations at home via her Alexa and his smartphone. 

Now the spy game has moved to mass data collection. The most obvious example of this is TikTok. See: How Tik Tok Became a Diplomatic Crisis. There are rumors that some of the dating apps either give feedback directly to state intelligence apparatus or hack into the system to figure out what appeals to you most. The Head of ASIO, Australia’s intelligence agency, recently confirmed that dating apps are now spy territory, too, because this is where “the hidden hand of a foreign state” often operates.

But the ones to watch are the innocuous electronics at home. One poor woman recently found that her new Roomba vacuum cleaner was taking photos of her on the loo and sending the screenshots to Facebook. The MIT Technology Review explains how the beta-testers did not realize that they had agreed to these photos and to their being used on social media.

The bottom line is this. It’s not just Google and Apple, and Facebook who want your data so they can make a fortune from it. The fridge has become the place where state intelligence apparatus, organized crime, and hackers converge on you. Welcome to the new Cold War. It’s in your fridge. Oh, and now the following electronics, among many others, also track, record, film, and reveal what’s going on in your life:

Rubbish bins


Home Connectivity

TV Screens

There are upsides. It’s a lot harder to get away with murder now, thanks to smart devices. Check out The FitBit Done Him In and the story of the Fitbit killer. One wonders if they had a smart kettle at home.

You can get in touch with Dr. Malmgren about public speaking events via LinkedIn or her website DrPippaMalmgren.com.
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