[A note from Stacey: Last week was surprisingly tough. I had an injection to help heal my tennis elbow and wasn’t able to work at my computer for this week’s newsletter. So, I asked Om Malik, my friend and former boss, to write this essay.]
A couple of ice ages ago, when I started writing about technology, personal computing was shorthand for computers used by enthusiasts. Such machines were eons away from becoming the personal computers that now sit on our desks and in our backpacks. In the post-PC age, personal computing means tablets and smartphones. After all, these always-on mobile devices are our constant companions. We are now glued to their screens, and more importantly, they are personalized to serve our every need.
Going forward, however, personal computing will become something else thanks to the growing number of connected devices — what readers of this newsletter affectionately call the Internet of Things. Indeed, in looking around my apartment recently I realized just how many of these devices had entered the most personal of my spaces: my home.
The list is long. Philips Hue for mood lighting. An Aura digital frame to display pictures of my family and friends. Samsung’s Frame TV to show off my landscape photographs. Plus a HomePod in my office, SyngSpace speakers in my bedroom, a connected streaming amplifier, and a few other bits and bobs. It’s not quite the Sharper Image showroom, but you get the drift.
And whenever I visit the standalone homes of my friends, I see a proliferation of security cameras, doorbells, nanny cams, and baby monitors, among other devices. That’s in addition to the photo frames, speakers, and of course, cleaning robots. This wave of connected devices is clearly not ending anytime soon. The recently concluded CES even had companies showing up with connected personal robot assistants, such as the Retriever from Labrador Systems. Most of these devices are packed with sensors — cameras, microphones, and motion sensors, to name just a few.
IoT, at least, from a consumer perspective, is the new and very personal computing.
These IoT devices are in our homes, which means they are collecting highly personal data about us. And yet we know so little about them. We don’t know anything about their security, including how they collect, store, and transmit data. Nor do we know who has access to them. (Stacey stressed the need to deal with this in her piece, We should talk about consent in IoT.)
I recently started confronting these questions when I enrolled in a closed beta test for a service from a still-in-stealth startup that monitors networking traffic. I was shocked to see how much data was being transmitted by the IoT devices, and more importantly, how much of it was going to places that made no sense.
It prompted me to go on an aggressive cleanse, to get rid of all but the most necessary devices (and those with acceptable network traffic patterns) on my home network. Notably, they were devices I’d bought on Amazon, or from other online markets whose provenance is questionable. And while I can’t categorically say that they were indulging in nefarious activities, after removing them from my network, the network traffic emanating from the remaining devices in my home started to make a lot more sense.
Hoping to learn more, I subsequently found myself going down various rabbit holes on the Internet. There have been numerous reports of vulnerabilities, backdoors, and hacking attempts on these most personal devices, I learned. And the problems seem to be escalating.
What’s even more troubling is that so many companies are selling the same underlying product made in the same factory under different brands. As consumers, we don’t know what we are getting, even when we pay for a brand-name product. In the home entertainment world, for example, there are big brands that are being forced to transition to connected digital devices. But because they don’t have software or underlying networking expertise, they end up depending on third parties, exposing themselves — and by extension, their customers — to potential hacks and vulnerabilities.
If the tech world wants consumers to embrace very personal computing, it needs to invest in trust. When writing about this issue previously, I’ve argued for “terms of trust” over “terms of service.” And it is high time that companies start taking security seriously; otherwise, they will lose consumer trust. Not only do the products have to become simpler to use, but security should be put front and center. When something as basic as changing passwords is a chore for the user, it’s time to make improvements.
As a former journalist, I know that companies aren’t going to make changes all on their own; they need to be forced. Perhaps it is time media outlets started forcing their hands. I want to see product reviews that dig deeper, that look at product security, data privacy, and the simplicity (or lack thereof) of the user experience. The vast majority of devices and the apps that come with them should be judged not just by what they do, but how well they do it. That includes maintaining the sanctity of our personal spaces — and our data.
When the personal computing revolution started, we were a naive and optimistic little clique of explorers and adventurers. Today, personal computing is for everyone, everywhere. We need to refocus and reimagine how we think about these highly personal computing products if we want the next era of computing to begin.
Om Malik is partner emeritus at True Ventures, an early-stage venture capital group based in Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writing at om.co.