While tech aficionados get ready to shell out cash for smart watches and other "smart" wearables hitting the market, developer Julian Oliver is looking to quash the potential surveillance capabilities of such devices. Oliver, an engineer, artist and open-source advocate based in Berlin, aims to do that with a new device called Cyborg Unplug.
Expected to be available for pre-order on Sept. 30, Cyborg Unplug is described as a "wireless anti-surveillance system for the home and workplace." Among the devices it is designed to detect and disconnect from a user's local wireless network are Google Glass, Dropcam, wireless "spy" microphones and small drones.
Cyborg Unplug, which will be available in two versions -- both priced between $50 and $100 -- follows Oliver's release earlier this year of a program called glasshole.sh. The script enables Raspberry Pi owners to detect the presence of a Google Glass device and disconnect that device from the wireless network.
Prevents Streaming, Not Recording
Cyborg Unplug works by "sniffing" for the distinctive hardware signatures of devices like Google Glass and other surveillance-enabling technologies. If it identifies the presence of such a device, Cyborg Unplug then automatically sends a signal that disconnects that device from the local wireless network.
While wireless network operations at home can be controlled and password-protected, networks in public locations such as cafes, libraries and schools are often open or available through a publicly shared password. It's in such locations that Cyborg Unplug is specifically designed to operate.
The Cyborg Unplug doesn't prevent operators of wearables or drones from being able to take photos or record audio or video. Instead, it puts a stop only to Internet-based streaming of any recorded content. As the product's Web site notes, "streaming to the Internet allows for remote backups and surveillance while ensuring the offending device contains no evidence of the abuse."
Cyborg Unplug's Web site adds that the device is legal to operate in "Territory Mode," which allows a user to disconnect devices from his or her own network. A second mode, "All Out Mode," disconnects devices from any network -- including, for example, a paired connection with a wearable owner's smartphone -- and "may not be legal" in all jurisdictions. The site warns, "We take no responsibility for the trouble you get yourself into if you choose to deploy your Cyborg Unplug in this mode."
'Stop the Cyborgs'
Oliver is one of the people behind the Web site "Stop the Cyborgs," which warns that the emerging combination of wearable technology with big-data analytics poses numerous threats to a free society.
"The issue is not covert recording," the Web site says. "Spy cameras exist and the current generation of Google Glass is not particularly good for covert recording. Rather the first issue is that...wearable devices socially normalise ubiquitous surveillance. That is, they create a society where we expect to be recorded, where every moment...is shared, documented and data-mined."
The site adds that wearable technology also "blurs the line between people and tech, between individuals and institutions."
The Stop the Cyborgs effort doesn't seek to wholly ban or prevent use of wearable computing devices. It notes, for example, that assistive technologies can help people with poor vision, memory problems or other disabilities. Its concern is "not the device itself but rather ownership and control over the data, and power relations and social norms around surveillance and control."