My Friend Cayla

If you, like me, have been reading about this era of high tech surveillance (and how can you not, considering the news these days), you can’t help but get a little paranoid about what might be spying on us.

I was the first to laugh when Kellyanne Conway started talking about surveillance in microwaves and other such outrageous claims meant to deflect attention from the real issues at hand in the world right now, but the more I learn, the more concerned I become. (I didn’t mean that to sound like I agree with Ms. Conway about anything. I assure you I don’t, and probably never will, and still believe her to be a menace. But that’s another column.)

Yes, no sooner had I scoffed at the ‘cameras in appliances’ theory when I happened upon a story about kids’ toys spying on people. It sounds crazy, but in January the Federal Trade Commission announced it was looking into complaints about i-Que and My Friend Cayla, two cute little toys that connect to the Internet, but which also allow strangers and advertisers to speak directly to children through the toys! One of those toys is already banned in Germany after their consumer product regulating agency indicated it was essentially a spying device.

Can you imagine? Your kid playing what she thinks is a harmless game and the toy whispers, “make your mommy buy me a friend!”

“Mommy, my toy is talking to me!”

“Sure it is, honey. Let me know if it gives you any good advice.”

Robot voices could be telling kids anything, and most parents would likely chalk up those claims to an active imagination.

It’s not just kids being creeped, though. The FTC has also recently handed out millions of dollars in fines to the manufacturer of Vizio Television, for collecting viewing data on its consumers without warning them. A Vizio TV could see and hear its owners even when it was turned off! Can you imagine? And Samsung recently admitted to doing something similar, too. At the very least, stories like that are enough to make me put a piece of duct tape over the lens of my laptop’s webcam.

Of course, these are two of the more extreme examples. Generally speaking, I don’t tend to get too worked up with conspiracy theories about being watched by “Big Brother,” whoever that may be. I don’t think my life is exciting enough for any agency to keep tabs on, and I’ve always been of the mind that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t care if someone is watching you. Still, even someone only moderately paranoid can’t deny that eyes are on us all the time, whether in person or on-line.

The best example I can think of is targeted ads. Just the other day I was searching for furniture on my laptop and followed a link to a Halifax store with some nice pieces. A few hours later, when I opened Facebook – on my phone, not even on the same computer – the couch I had looked on-line earlier was staring back at me from a prominent advertisement on my own Facebook page.

Seriously? I looked at that couch for 30 seconds, without logging into any site, and not even on the same computer, and somehow, something still knew I was looking at it? What kind of witchcraft is that?

Between Google search parameters, “short surveys,” cookies left behind while we’re web browsing, even the loyalty rewards programs we use, data is being gathered and we’re being tracked.

Try as we might to limit what companies and the government learn about us and our preferences, the hungry marketing companies working behind the scenes go to great lengths to study and control the production of consumer goods and services. They are very aware of what we like and what we don’t, and very eager to share that information to whoever is willing to pay for it.

Much as I am a little creeped out by the thought of someone watching me, I think I’m too attached to technology to give it up, and going far enough off the grid to be completely out of sight is just not realistic, these days. We might as well accept that, despite commissions and laws designed to protect us, we’ve traded our privacy for convenience.

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Gina MacDonald is a freelance columnist, mother and wife who lives outside Port Hawkesbury.