Let us forgive Kellyanne Conway’s very stupid microwave line
"I’m not Inspector Gadget," Kellyanne Conway explained after her latest gaffe.
Over the weekend, Kellyanne Conway talked some nonsense about microwaves. Which has put us in the unfortunate position of defending her nonsense.
"There was an article this week that talked about how you can surveil someone through their phone, through their television sets, any number of different ways, microwaves that turn into cameras," she told The Bergen Record. "That’s just a fact of modern life."
The internet was swift to lol at Ms. Conway, who very clearly doesn’t understand how technology works. There’s no joy in defending her—recall that, as Trump’s mouthpiece and de facto spokeslizard, she once invented a massacre and blamed refugees for it. And yet: while Conway’s view on microwaves is both wildly ignorant and comically paranoid (no, they can’t "turn into cameras"), her comment does carve out a piece of a much larger pie that we’re all too happy to dine on.
Last week: your TV could be spying you!
This week: look at this crazy woman who thinks microwave ovens are spying on Trump.
— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) March 13, 2017
It was only a week ago when WikiLeaks dumped a trove of unverified documents that (among other things) alleged that the CIA could spy on people through their Samsung smart TVs. And every news outlet wrote an explainer piggybacking on this "news," with headlines built for the Salinger-backpocketers and tin foil hat enthusiasts in all of us: "How to know if your smart TV can spy on you." And so on. And this same cycle’s playing out about microwaves right now, of course.
Those stories were built on a faulty premise. As we explained, while WikiLeaks did in fact reveal an alleged hack that the CIA could use to bug smart TVs, they were very specific Samsung smart TVs, and required an agent to have physical access to the device’s USB port. Oh, and also? Samsung says it patched the security flaw already.
Still, the story—usually devoid of context and packaged for maximum viral impact on Facebook—exploded. Wired, even in admitting that the hack was almost certainly irrelevant to the vast majority of Samsung TV owners, published an entire article about how to check if the CIA has compromised your television.
People shared it thousands of times on social media, according to CrowdTangle, an analytics tool:
(In fairness, Mashable’s initial story wasn’t exactly gentle, with the headline "WikiLeaks document dump alleges the CIA can hack almost everything.")
No one said anything about microwaves, but the implication of all this was clear: If you have a device that’s connected to the internet, evil spies can hack into them and steal your precious data.
This is a genuinely important topic and a conversation worth having. As cybersecurity expert Bruce Schnier explained in a New York magazine piece earlier this year, the "internet of things" represents a major security crisis for a whole mess of reasons. Internet-connected gadgets can be hacked and leveraged for "denial of service" attacks of the sort that pummeled major sites across the Web last fall. And yeah, they can absolutely expose your personal information.
Kellyanne Conway, who speaks inelegantly and lies constantly, made a stupid comment about microwaves, and she did so in defense of her boss’ outlandish claims that his beautiful Trump Tower had been bugged by the government. None of this is working in her favor.
But our rush to 👏 drag 👏 her has basically resulted in a mess of hypocrisy that makes important writing about cybersecurity seem less credible, in retrospect. It also makes some of us look like sharks—a bit too eager to bite when there’s blood in the water.
The spirit of what Conway said was actually on the money, for once. Per the usual, she just kind of crapped out on the details. We can’t let what’s missing from the message, here—or even the messenger, as routinely misguided as this one may be—stop us from having a smart, informed conversation about the "internet of things" and what it means for the future of our privacy.