TECH
01/14/2015 08:36 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Our Obsession With Convenience Could Get Scary

Google

This is the not-so-far-off future that technology companies and appliance makers envision:

As you’re being chauffeured from work in your self-driving car, your home will come to life. Your thermostat will adjust to the ideal temperature, the garage door will open as your car approaches and your door will unlock when it recognizes you. As you enter your kitchen, a screen above the stove will turn on, welcoming you home. On the screen will be options for dinner, based not only on your tastes and preferences and the ingredients you have in your refrigerator and pantry, but also on the nutrients your body needs. That’s because you’ll be wearing a biometric device that tracks your movement, your health and your stress levels. And when you choose a meal, you’ll be walked, step by step, through how to cook the meal, down to exactly when to add each ingredient.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show, the annual mega-gathering of tech companies in Las Vegas that came to a close Friday, the dominant theme was what the industry has regrettably deemed “The Internet Of Things.” The premise of the iOT (the unfortunate acronym) is that every product, from your car to your thermostat to your refrigerator to your baby’s bottle, will be connected to the Internet. The products communicate, and some will get to know you and your habits, understand you, and come to anticipate what you’ll do next.

This more connected world, tech executives insist, will allow us to be healthier, spend less time on menial tasks and errands, and have more time with our families and loved ones.

Nearly every company at CES, it seemed, from small startups to the biggest players in the industry, is vying for a place in this market. And it's easy to see why: Technology research firm IDC says the sector will grow to over $3 trillion by 2020, up from $1.3 trillion in 2013.

BK Yoon, president and CEO of Samsung electronics, announced at CES that by 2020, all of the products the Korean appliance and tech giant sells, from washing machines to ovens to headphones and speakers, will have a network connection and be part of the so-called “Internet of things.”

“Arguably it is the most important topic for our industry right now,” Yoon told a packed crowd at the Venetian hotel and casino last week.

To be sure, some parts of this brave new world sound great. There will be applications for home health monitoring that could save visits to the hospital, tools that will help you cut down your energy and water usage, and, of course, driverless cars, which could potentially decrease the number of car accidents. But there also could be unwelcome scenarios if every part of your life is being tracked and everything you use is connected to the Internet.

Maybe your New Year’s resolution was to spend less time looking at a screen and more time looking at real people. But if you think it’s difficult to take a break from technology now -- to ditch your smartphone to lie in the park and read a book -- just imagine how difficult it will be when your clothes, smart watch, jewelry and oven are all embedded with sensors and connected to a network, and your stove's backsplash is an interactive screen. Good luck unplugging.

Security will also be a huge issue. It seems like each week we hear of another high-profile hack -- Sony, Home Depot, Target, JP Morgan Chase and Staples are just a few of the companies that have been breached in recent memory. As The New York Times’ Molly Wood outlined last week, we’ve already seen smart TVs, baby monitors and connected cameras hacked. Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the FTC, highlighted some of these concerns in a speech she gave at the show. “Any device that is connected to the Internet is at risk of being hijacked,” she said, according to prepared remarks. “And, as we purchase more smart devices, they increase the number of entry points an intruder could exploit to launch attacks on or from.”

The "smart home" of the future will have dozens of connected devices, and dozens of ways hackers can get into your home. If some of the biggest companies can't keep data safe from intruders now, I’m skeptical the startups and established tech companies that are battling it out to dominate your home will be able to keep out unwanted visitors.

And consider the following scenario, laid out to me by a friend I met up with at CES: Let’s say you don’t get a great night’s sleep, and your mattress has a sleep sensor. It communicates with your other products and services, so maybe when you look at your smartphone in the morning, you’ll see a targeted ad for a delicious but not-so-healthy junk food breakfast, just what your body craves when you’re tired. It’s certainly within reason that a large restaurant chain that serves a greasy breakfast would want to buy ads that target people who didn’t get a lot of sleep.

With myriad products collecting information about our sleep, our health, what we eat and how much we move, it’s going to be very difficult to know exactly what companies are doing with our data -- what data they collect, who they’re sharing it with and how they’re protecting it.

I moderated a panel on the Internet of Things at CES and asked one of the participants, Brian Van Harlingen, Belkin’s chief technology officer, about the sleep and junk food example. Belkin makes the line of WeMo smart home products, which includes smart light bulbs, connected security cameras and sensors.

“We do have to be very careful and very sensitive to privacy concerns," Van Harlingen said, adding that the industry will need to be "very conscious of the value we’re bringing to consumers and make sure that it’s proportional to the amount of privacy we’re asking them to give up.”

But if there’s one thing we’ve shown as consumers, it’s that we’re very willing to give up a lot of privacy for convenience and value, and we’ve become increasingly willing to do so as new products and services have become even more ingrained in our lives.

When Google first introduced Gmail, which promised a free gigabyte of storage -- a mind-blowingly huge amount at the time it was released in 2004 -- in exchange for allowing Google’s computers to read your email and serve you relevant ads, privacy advocates, some consumers and even a state senator balked. Now, most of us don’t think twice about how the ads we see in Gmail got there.

Many of us have no problem telling Facebook our birthdays, or posting photos of our families, where we live, our hobbies, who we’re in a relationship with and where we spend time. Facebook uses some of this to give us targeted ads, but we don’t mind because we see value in Facebook.

Scott Burnett, director of global consumer electronics at IBM, and another member of the panel, said that different people of different ages have different levels of data they’re willing to give up in exchange for value.

“I think we’re going to see that evolve,” Burnett said.

Tech companies have seen just how much our views on privacy and data have evolved over the last decade. If the past is any indication, we’ll be more than willing to keep giving it up, as long as we keep getting something out of it.

I’m not yet ready to live in a world where everything is connected. I don't want to see ads gleaned from information about my sleep patterns and what I've been cooking -- and I'm not convinced all the companies betting on this future are motivated by my best interests.

But I also don’t have to be ready, because that world isn’t here yet. It’s just a question of whether I -- or you -- will be ready for it when it inevitably arrives.

I’m not so sure I will be.

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