When DIY Gadgets Do More Harm Than Good

People can build their own software and devices to spy, or worse

28 September 2017

The Institute published a special report this month on the maker movement and the many ways that providing people with the tools to build their own gadgets can be used to help others. One way, for example, is by creating customized DIY prosthetics for children who have lost limbs.

But there also might be dangers associated with low-cost electronics and components that allow people to create their own devices. It was reported this month, for example, that the Amazon algorithm that recommends related products has displayed components frequently bought together that could make an explosive device. If an Amazon customer adds a cooking ingredient to her cart that could be used to make a bomb, other items used to make the homemade weapon are automatically suggested. In light of news reports, Amazon said it is reviewing its website’s policies.

To get a better understanding about the dark side of the DIY movement, The Institute interviewed IEEE Senior Member Katina Michael, editor in chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine and senior editor of IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine. Michael is a professor in the School of Computing and Information Technology at the University of Wollongong, in Australia. She has taught a course on cybercrime in the university’s law school, where she earned a master’s degree in transnational crime prevention. She is a member of the Australian Privacy Foundation, a nongovernmental organization.

What are your concerns about DIY gadgets?

There are many DIY projects that can be used for nefarious purposes. Those who are creating gadgets for spying and surveillance, stalking, or money laundering are not makers but criminals with technical capabilities.

Because the cost of electronic components has come down substantially, technically savvy people can create covert cameras, audio recorders, tracking devices, and keyloggers, which record computer activity. These devices can be hidden in people’s homes, cars, and laptops. Such devices have been used for cyberstalking and child pornography, unauthorized computer access, and illegal workplace surveillance.

What is an example of how everyday people could be affected?

People are creating ways to stalk their romantic partners or former partners. This might include writing software that duplicates every incoming and outgoing email in their inbox and redirecting it to another email address without an obvious trace. Or apps can be developed that record conversations on a smartphone or an IP-based landline, or invade social media accounts.

DIY devices can be used to hack baby monitors and smart TVs for spying, connecting them even to another TV in the house. GPS trackers are being used to prove a spouse is cheating or to track a partner who has left a domestic abuse situation. In Australia, 98 percent of domestic violence situations included the use of technology to track down and spy on a partner. Law enforcement is oftentimes not equipped to handle such cases that involve technology, and so there is little follow-up on these cases.

There are even devices that can be built to automatically lock people in their houses. With more Internet-of-Things products on the market, this is becoming easier to do.

It seems it would be difficult to regulate the sale or monitor the purchasers of DIY devices, because parts could be sold separately, or a harmless gadget could be repurposed.

It’s very difficult to control or regulate DIY devices—and doing so could be a step in the wrong direction, since many people use these same electronic components for innocent projects. It comes down to the ethical uses of these technologies, and law-abiding citizens.

It’s not possible currently to track who is downloading templates for projects such as 3D-printed guns. In Australia, a recently passed law bans possessing a digital blueprint used to print firearms—which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

What more needs to be done to protect people?

If they are concerned, people can take matters into their own hands by purchasing devices that detect planted bugs, listening devices, and wireless cameras in their home.

There should also be more awareness around these issues. This includes providing cybersafety programs in schools and training employees about potential dangers of technology. This might include not leaving their smartphones unattended on their desk, and precautions using public Wi-Fi hotspots. Some new regulations need to be considered by government agencies, and existing laws need to be amended and enforced.

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