Did you know your television is watching you? Specifically, that most smart TVs are sending data off to their makers and in certain cases, to marketers. Consumer Reports showcased the security flaws and the lack of privacy inherent in connected TV in a report last week, while over at Gizmodo Kashmir Hill has a new article out about privacy in the smart home that puts a big focus on televisions.
It’s no secret that internet-connected TVs share data with others, nor is it remarkable that most TVs available today are smart. That’s what allows you to watch Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon Prime shows. But the rest of our appliances are also going the way of TV. Samsung and Kenmore both say that, going forward, all of their appliances will have some kind of connectivity built into them.
And for many, the features enabled by connected devices will mostly outweigh the fears of data surveillance. I’m not talking about connected light bulbs and home automation here, but about adding truly innovative and helpful features to once-dumb appliances, letting them become truly smart.
An example of this is a washing machine that can tell how dirty your clothes are and select the proper cycle. Or a fridge that can offer you a remote camera feed to the inside so you can see what’s on the shelf. Maybe the fridge could reorder your water filter when it’s getting old. Even better, maybe that same filter could report back on the purity of the water to environmental agencies and consumers as a way to ensure public health.
Smarter products will have to be connected in order to create information exchanges that benefit the consumer, the manufacturer, and maybe even society. However, the industry so far is screwing this up with an ineptitude driven by greed, short-term thinking, and a desire to act first and beg forgiveness later.
This is emblematic of the culture built up over the last two decades in technology, where we took the internet and used it to turn users into the product. The current backlash against Silicon Valley companies is a reaction to this exchange of personal data for services. Especially as the services became more about keeping the person engaged to the exclusion of their well-being or the well-being of society.
This may sound like hippie dippie stuff, but there is a direct link from Google and Facebook’s behavior to the privacy concerns that people have with regard to connected devices. That those concerns are completely justified only makes it worse.
I’ve spent years trying to tell the industry and the government that privacy matters. Not just because it’s a basic right, but because if you respect people’s privacy and offer them agency over controlling their data, they are more likely to buy the product. And if you offer them a compelling reason to share their data while still offering them some control, you actually build a model where the data you collect has to benefit the user or the larger society.
We are starting to see some momentum on this front, and I am hopeful that 2018 will be a turning point in the U.S. The General Data Protection Regulation in the EU has already established a framework for how to establish data privacy as a human right. What’s even more promising is that many of the regulations in the GDPR are impossible or difficult to implement today, and the EU realizes that.
The hope is that the EU will guide technologists in developing tools that match the regulatory framework while the regulatory stick offer will offer an incentive for companies to make a market to develop the tools required to meet the law. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., technologists are increasingly asking themselves how to get and use data responsibly.
While this entire essay is focused on the importance of managing user privacy and the intentional gathering and sharing of consumer data, security is also related to the topic. Specifically, what happens to consumer data when security is breached. As it stands, consumers are worried both about a loss of their privacy to companies, but also to hackers as part of the all-too-often security breaches.
Until the tech companies get their priorities in order and the government steps up with rules that give consumers some control over their information, I believe the promise of the smart home will never take off, because consumers won’t trust it.