March 16, 2012, 4:49 PM — There's a really lame old joke that feels like it grew out of Soviet Cold War cynicism but is as American as paranoia gets: The setup doesn't have to be too specific – just anything that mentions the CIA, FBI or NSA's tendency to run covert surveillance operations even within the U.S. (where only the FBI is supposed to).
The punchline is always the same: One character asks another something about how to get ahold of the spies to report something suspicious. "I don't know where to call them," the other character replies, "but just talk loudly into the lamp and they'll hear you."
It was probably funny once, but only when J. Edgar Hoover was still alive and only if you already knew how snoopy he was.
If he were alive now he'd die of jealousy after an announcement from the CIA that makes it clear how willing both the CIA and its congressional bosses are to have the agency responsible for foreign intelligence spying on Americans.
CIA Director David Petraeus, like at least one person every geek knows who is obsessed with the Internet of Things and won't shut up about it, gushed over the growth in intelligence among household appliances not because they would make life simpler or power use more efficient or give consumers access to the Internet through more and more devices that have no good reason to connect to the Internet.
The universe of wired devices will be "transformational," according to Wired's report from a conference at In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture-capital firm.
Every Internet-of-things geek says it will be transformational, but usually they're talking about good things.
"I do believe [transformational] applies to these technologies," Petraeus said. "Particularly their effect on clandestine tradecraft."
The best thing about adding intelligence to ordinary devices is that they can be remotely monitored, controlled and used as pickups for sound, video and wireless data – capabilities that can be used or abused at will even by spy agencies wanting to listen in on private citizens without the justification needed for a warrant or effort needed for an illegal bug.
The prevalence of wireless, powerline and other non-standard networking connections will also make it possible for unnamed spy agencies to conduct their surveillance without leaving any fingerprints to show they were there – because they're not allowed to do surveillance on Americans in the first place, so their only choice is to hide it really well.