Smart-Products Industry Faces Tough Privacy Questions

Tires low? You must be lazy. Overdue for an oil change? You’re a procrastinator. Punching the gas? You have aggression issues.

Of course, right now, all of that is just between you and your car. But not for long.

New technology called V2V, for “vehicle-to-vehicle,” is capable of transmitting those sorts of vital statistics through cyberspace, not to mention where you’re going, and how fast. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has begun a process that could wind up requiring it in all new cars as soon as 2016.

It’s part of the brave new world of connected consumer appliances, the kind of technology that lets you change your home alarm or thermostat and check what’s in the fridge from a smartphone or a laptop.

The idea is to make the world a little safer—the Department of Transportation says V2V could help prevent 80 percent of accidents that don’t involve impaired drivers, for instance, by keeping cars a prudent distance apart—but as the details of our lives increasingly show up on grids, some activists fear unintended consequences likely to significantly broaden the already contentious debate about Internet privacy.

“That data explodes as we get into this fully networked world where everything is in communication with everything else,” says Martin Abrams, executive director of the Information Accountability Foundation. “I’m less concerned about my refrigerator, definitely not concerned about my washer and dryer, but when we have this huge expansion of the observational data, we can use it to infer things about individuals or predict behaviors.”

This is not a fringe fear fueled by conspiracy theorists. It’s the subject of an international conference in Paris convened by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and a nationwide series of hearings at MIT, New York University, and the University of California at Berkeley, organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

That’s because the number of connected devices will grow from about two billion today to more than nine billion within the next five years, according to the Biometrics Research Group. Of those, 500 million will include so-called biometric sensors, which track what people do, where they are, and when.

Trouble is, this technology is so new and fast-moving that it isn’t yet clear exactly how the data might be misused, which makes it tough to come up with ways to avoid that.

“It’s hard to know how much we should worry, because the potential collection and use of this information is invisible to us,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

“In some cases companies that collect the information don’t even know how the information could be used,” Grant says. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not collecting it for some potential use down the road. Then there’s the concern about how the holder of the information may use or share it, and what control, if any, we would have of that. There are lots of issues and they all point to the need for some basic privacy legislation, which we don’t have.”

Because the development of connected technology is swift and fluid, Grant says, that legislation likely couldn’t keep up with each potential misuse of data. And promises from companies that they will regulate themselves are not airtight.

“We’ve seen that even the best companies have sometimes done things that were bad for consumers,” Grant says.

Instead, she says, legislation should set down basic privacy rights and hand over day-to-day supervision to a government agency such as the Federal Trade Commission, which could create regulations when they’re needed, as it does already under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which restricts telemarketing.

What shouldn’t happen, amid growing paranoia over privacy, says Abrams, is a curb on the technology itself.

“One can’t stand in the way of technology,” he says. “Technology just is. One can govern the use of technology.”

But privacy protections can also be a part of technological design, something that has given rise to a new field known as privacy engineering. Carnegie Mellon University this year began a first-of-its-kind, 12-month master’s program in it, and Martin is a coauthor of a new book called The Privacy Engineer’s Manifesto: Getting from Policy to Code to QA to Value.

Engineers “should be part of how you develop the technology, and the FTC and others have advocated quite rightly for privacy by design,” Grant says. “Could that sometimes slow bringing something to market? I imagine that it could. But what is the goal? Is the goal to have something come out as quickly as possible, or is the goal to have something that really serves consumers?”

Want to stay off the grid completely? Try the new Blackphone, an Android-based smartphone with your privacy in mind. It can shut down Wi-Fi tracking and protects against apps that try to mine your personal information. It also hides all your data in Switzerland (yes, seriously).

Boeing just came out with a similar “Black” phone for defense customers.

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