February 9th, 2017

Poverty Helps You Keep Technology Safe and Easy

In the technology age, there might be some before unknown advantages to living on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. The question is, do they outweigh the disadvantages.

Roblimo’s Hideaway

Poor Linux

Earlier this week I saw a ZDNet story titled Vizio: The spy in your TV by my friend Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols. Scary stuff. I had a vision of my wife and me and a few dozen of our closest friends having a secret orgy in our living room, except our smart TV’s unblinking eye was recording our every thrust and parry (you might say). Zut alors! In this day of Internet everywhere, we all know that what goes online, stays online. Suddenly our orgy wasn’t secret, and my hopes of becoming the next President were dashed.

Except… lucky me! I’m poor, so I have an oldie-but-goodie dumb TV that doesn’t have a camera. There’s no way my old Vizio can spy on us. As Mel Brooks didn’t quite say, “It’s good to be the poverty case.”

Now about that Internet-connected thermostat. I don’t have one. They’re not only expensive (which is why I don’t have one), but according to this article, they can be hacked to to run ransomware. Oh my! Once again, poverty saves me from a tech problem that can easily afflict my more prosperous neighbors.

And how about the latest iPhone and the skinniest Mac BookPro. Apple sells the iPhone 7 Plus (gotta have the plussier one) for $769 or more. The MacBook, despite Scottish connotations of thrift, is Apple-priced “From $1299.” That’s a bunch of money, especially since we all know that as soon as you buy an Apple product it is obsolete and you need to get ready to buy a new, fancier one.

Also, don’t these things explode sometimes? Or catch on fire or something? My sub-$100 Android phone is safe as houses by comparison. (It has a bigger screen than the biggest-screen iPhone 7, too. Amnazing!)

Really big safe smartphone for cheap. Check. Simple, old-fashioned, non-networked thermostats that can’t be hacked. TV without the spycams most of the Money-TVs have. Check.

But wait! There’s more! The Android phones that got famous for burning up everything in sight were top-dollar models my wife says she wouldn’t want even if we could afford them. Safety first, right? Frugality’s up there, too.

Now let’s talk about how I got started with Linux.

Guess what? It was because I was poor! The PC I had back in the days of yore ran DOS just fine, but couldn’t touch Windows 98 when it came out. Not only that, but Windows was expensive, and I was poor. Luckily, I had time on my hands, so I rooted around on the Internet (at phone modem speed) and eventually lit upon Red Hat Linux, which took forever to download and had an install procedure so complicated that instead of figuring it out I wrote an article about how Linux might be great for home computer use someday in the future, but not at the moment.

This led to the discovery of several helpful local Linux Users Groups (LUGs) and skilled help getting Linux going on my admittedly creaky PC. And that, you might say, led to my career as an IT writer and editor, including my time at Slashdot, NewsForge, and Linux.com.

This effectively, albeit temporarily, ended my poverty, but with the help of needy relatives — and later, needy doctors and hospitals — I was able to stay true to my “po’ people” roots. I’m glad I did. You’ve probably seen this article about hackers remotely shutting down a Jeep Cherokee. Hah! My 1996 Jeep Cherokee is totally immune to this kind of attack. Even my 2013 Kia Soul is relatively immune, since it lacks remote-start/stop and other deluxe convenience features that make new cars easy to hack.

And the list goes on… same as the beat went on for Sonny and Cher. The more conveniences and Internet connections you have, the more vulnerable you are. Home automation? Make you into a giant hacking target. There’s also a (distant) possibility that your automated, uP-controlled home could become self-aware, suddenly say “I can’t do that, Dave,” and refuse to listen to your frantic cries that you aren’t Dave as it dumps you into the Internet-aware garbage disposal.

The solution? You got it! Stay poor! Own the fewest possible web-connect cameras and microphones. Don’t get a thermostat people in Nigeria can program to turn your temperature up and down on one-minute cycles. No automatic lights. I mean… I MEAN… is it really all that hard to flick a light switch? I know, that’s something a previous generation took for granted the same way they once walked across the room to change TV channels, and didn’t complain about it.

Computers? I have (not at my own expense) computers on my desk that run Mac OS, Windows, and Linux. Guess which OS causes me the least grief and confusion? You got it. The one that cost the least!

So I leave you with this thought: In today’s overly-connected world of overly-complex technology, one of the kindest parting comments you can make to someone you care about is, “Stay poor, my friend!”

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Robin "Roblimo" Miller

Robin "Roblimo" Miller is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief at Open Source Technology Group, the company that owned SourceForge, freshmeat, Linux.com, NewsForge, ThinkGeek and Slashdot, and until recently served as a video editor at Slashdot. He also publishes the blog Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller’s Personal Site. @robinAKAroblimo

20 comments to Poverty Helps You Keep Technology Safe and Easy

  • tracyanne

    You don’t have to be poor. Just buy smart, not “smart” devices, but think about the personal dangers this technology presents, and buy accordingly

  • Mike

    @tracyanne

    +1

    Avoiding tech is one way, but mastering it is a better way. Tech isn’t magic. Learn how that thermostat works. Understand the tradeoffs between setting up your own FOSS solution and trusting a corporate controlled “cloud” based device.

    Often a FOSS solution will get you 80% of the features with only 20% of the vulnerability.

  • tracyanne

    @Mike

    It’s often the case that many of the most touted features, that sound great to the technology ignorant, are the most privacy invasive.

    Just say “[Fancy great Sound bit Codeword]” and your TV will deliver the latest [Most popular sounding whatever]

    The built in camera detects if there are children in the room and automatically ensures only approved content is delivered

  • Mike

    Absolutely agreed.

  • Mike S.

    One minor point: while Apple does a great job conning buyers into unnecessary upgrades, their product support cycles are typically *better*, not worse, than for Android devices.

    I don’t know what $100 Android phone you have, but I suspect it will have at least one major security flaw that will never be patched by the time it’s two years old. 95% of iPhone owners may upgrade within two years, but the other 5% can get 3-4 years of updates for the model they stick with.

    Linux on the desktop is a wonderful thing. Android is a mess with too many bad options.

  • Eddie G.

    I for one will NEVER install thermostats that can be controlled by a PC or wireless device. I don’t need a smart TV or anything else for that matter in my house. I want a “regular unleaded” 55 inch flat screen that only plays what I plug into it….not the ones that have menus that lead to more menus….which lead to features I’m not interested in. I have three laptops and a desktop and none of them run anything but Linux, and I am secure in that knowledge. In regards to the car….I drive a 2000 Buick Century….but plan on upgrading soon…to possibly a newer version without all the bells and whistles. And finally in regards to buying tech, I feel that you should buy what you NEED not what happens to be the Flavor Of The Month. For instance I have ThinkPads from 2011 that work perfectly fine. Are they as fast as what’s out there now? No. But do they do what I set them up to do without a problem? Yes. Do I NEED to have them boot up .0005 seconds faster than they do now? No. Sometimes I feel as if mankind is purposely trying to raise a generation of idiots since everything is getting “dumbed down” to the point where mankind cannot think for itself. Imagine you now need a DEVICE to keep you FIT!?…yeah…nonsense.

  • tracyanne

    @Eddie G.

    I have a laptop I bought in 2006 (which I currently use as a recording studio, with Ubuntu Studio running on it) that is still just as fast as the new laptop I bought last year. Mind you that laptop cost me nearly $5000.00 in 2006.

    So for performance don’t disparage older hardware.

  • Mike S.

    Oh, a point on cars – the one drawback of using older models is crash safety. Traffic fatalities are still a leading cause of death for people under age 55.

    The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has safety tests that it started doing around 2000, and they’ve been adding harder tests over time. The US National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has had its “5 star” crash tests for decades, but they made the tests much harder in 2011 and a lot of vehicles that had 5 stars in 2010 got 3 stars in the newer tests.

    That said, I am terrified of what happens when someone figures out how to remotely hack autonomous vehicles. Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and Cisco have to release dozens of security fixes a year, and we are to believe that Ford, Chrysler, GM, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, Nissan, Tesla, and so forth can manage security for their driving software? Nonsense!

  • Alan Rochester

    Your Hideaway is in a stock photograph?

  • Bob

    Hahaha – very good article. You need not be poor to avoid the latest technology spy ware built in to all things related to IoT devices. Just be technically savvy. Eventually, even the poor will have many IoT devices without their knowledge as time moves forward. Very soon, you will not be able to buy a “dumb” TV or even a “dumb” phone. They just won’t exist.

    These companies exploit the non-tech-savvy people. They are not concerned about the few (percentage wise) tech savvy people who know how to turn off or secure their IoT devices. And with each release of their IoT devices, they will build in features that make it seem that we cannot live without it and with that comes an opening for them to spy on us. It can be as innocuous as a voice activated TV remote. Which is connected to your TV which is connected to the internet as you now must have NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon Prime for your entertainment. But now they can hear what you say.

    It is interesting that I see my tech friends, I work in IT, break off in 2 groups. One group says “I don’t care. Resistance if futile. I am being tracked so many ways, I don’t even care about it anymore. There’s nothing I can do.” And the other group is the paranoid group who read all the hacking articles/magazines/web sites and go to the hacking conventions and are like some of you who won’t purchase anything IoT related while they still can. I have an IT friend who is still terrified of ATM machines and refuses to use them under unless absolutely necessary. But again, the latter group is not the group that companies worry about.

    It’s a scary tracking world out there!

  • CFWhitman

    Most smart TVs, including most of the Vizio televisions that tracked their users’ activity, don’t include any kind of camera. What the Vizio televisions did was monitor the information being sent to the screen and send it off to be identified through a database of movie and television information. Then this record of what you watched was forwarded to a database for analyzation by advertisers, production companies, etc. So what you were doing in the room the television was in was not being recorded.

    Of course the way to combat this is to deprive the “smart” (perhaps “devious” would be a more apt description) television of any kind of Internet access.

  • Mike

    @CFWhitman

    You’re right, but of course even without a camera, tracking everything you watch (dvd, streaming, etc.) and linking that with your public IP and then selling that to a third-party is EXTREMELY invasive. Add a camera or microphone and it’s terrifying.

    Blocking net access is a possibility…until the devices refuse to operate without it. Even way back with Windows 98, I saw Microsoft adding ‘phone home’ features and started blocking its access to Microsoft owned servers. Try that with Windows today and you have little more than a brick.

    FOSS…once again…is the only true solution.

    Most of the ‘phone home’ stuff in IoT devices is completely unnecessary to their core function anyway and only serve corporate info gathering purposes. Given the ever increasing rate of security breaches at corps large and small this should worry everyone.

    I have a word of advice for companies building for the IoT: Don’t collect data and there will be nothing to steal.

  • Mike S.

    @Mike

    I think we both know companies will try to squeeze every dollar of revenue they can from customer data collection.

    The only smart move is avoiding these devices.

  • Nonya

    I am a poor person, but even if I were to suddenly become wealthy, I would not buy any IoT stuff. I would instead use that wealth to stockpile certain (non-IoT) items for future use.

  • Eddie G.

    @tracyanne: I don’t doubt that your newer laptop can run circles around my older ones. I myself have been tempted a few times to spend more on something new and shiny, but I just feel “safer” with the older tech. Its features are not pumped up and blared in my face. I can d owhat I need to do without the “advertising noise” of it’s touch-screen this or retina-scanning that. I’m an old coot I guess….who’s resisting this mega shift of change into the new world order.

  • Randal

    Had a woman that called in an order, because “her phone gave her our number”, even though it is a local pickup thing and she is states away.
    I am not one who thinks I need Smart devices, as I think for myself. I am on my second phone, my last one made it close to seven years. This one is also a candy bar style phone, and my cell service, costs me around $50 a year. I don’t text (or need to give myself distractions that can be dangerous). That free air tv works good. Not sure why I would pay a lot of money, every month, to complain nothing is on, when one months tv would pay for several dvd’s with stuff I would want to watch (series, season, rentals, etc). Don’t need the largest house to fit all this stuff, and the extra heating/cooling/taxes/maintenance etc.
    I still wish cars had vent windows.
    Your money/privacy, your choices and values.

  • tracyanne

    @Eddie G.
    February 11, 2017 at 10:30 am

    >>>>>>@tracyanne: I don’t doubt that your newer laptop can run circles around my older ones.,<<<<<<<

    I was talking about an older laptop that still performs as well as newer laptops

  • Misha

    Interesting times are coming when people will drive second hand cars that don’t receive needed security updates anymore.

    Or maybe not, because car crashes *are* much worse press than pc crashes.

  • UncleEd

    When I was in front of a class every day, there was a topic of electronic control systems, microprocessor controls, and the like. I’d stop and ask the classes why there are electronic controls on so many things we use every day–microwave ovens, auto fuel systems, coffee makers, VCRs, television tuners, the machine that balanced the tires on my car, and others. Until the last several years, they were controlled manually or using mechanical means.

    So why do these things come with electronic controls now? Lots of guesses from the students, until I would throw in the distracting hint that it’s because of an important American value. Then it was deathly silence and nobody ever got it.

    It’s cheaper.

  • Mike

    Why does my microwave oven need a clock?

    Every time the power goes out it refuses to cook unless you first tell it the date. Do people regularly program their microwave to cook things days in advance?

    Personally I think microwaves shouldn’t cook more than 10 minutes at a time (as a safety feature). If it isn’t done, push the button again.

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