Privacy Advisor

CES Buzzes With Privacy News

January 7, 2014

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

With more than 150,000 attendees descending on Las Vegas, NV, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which kicked off on January 6, is the largest event of its kind in the world and is often the venue where electronics manufacturers make their big product unveilings.

While Apple is notable in its regular absence from the event, most of the other big consumer players are in attendance, and it has been the site of such product releases as the Pong home console, the VCR, the DVD and lots of other devices you’ve probably got in your home today. (Here’s a pretty great group of historical photos from the event, if you’re a nostalgia type.)

Never, however, has privacy been such a common theme on the show floor as it is this year, the first post-Snowden event. 3M is even trying to induce attendees to come to their booth by offering a privacy-enhancing iPhone screen protector for those who stop by. With a flood of wearable technology being introduced this year, along with new flying drones and smarter cars, there are constant messages from manufacturers of privacy assurance.

Don’t have time to fly to Las Vegas and walk the show floor? Well, here’s our roundup of the big privacy news:

Sure, ultra HD TVs are the big news, but it’s also big news that the TVs will now increasingly be watching the people who watch them. In this piece for Variety, Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, notes that wearable technology will be increasingly integrated into the television-watching experience. For example, a sensor might find a viewer is stressed out and therefore suggest a comedy or something relaxing.

With this kind of information being gathered, he’s asked, isn’t privacy a new consideration?

“I think you’ll see a number of companies address that this week,” he said, but then echoed Vint Cerf by musing, “I wonder sometimes if privacy is an anomaly … I think if I can get a richer experience by sharing some of my data or having my data used on my behalf, that’s a fair trade-off.” Further, “he doubted underlying individual or aggregate data would hold much interest for snoopers.” (IAPP VP of Research and Education Omer Tene debunked the “anomaly” part of this argument recently on the Privacy Perspectives blog.)

But it’s not just integration with wearables. Panasonic introduced at CES TVs that incorporate facial recognition technology, “whether you want it or not,” writes AllVoices. The Life+Screen sets will be available this spring and will “recognize each user individually and build up a personalized profile of their favorite content.”

The writer in this case wonders about potential NSA hacking and whether the trade-off is good enough: “I had always thought that the smart TV manufacturers would give us something really cool in exchange for the ability to monitor us,” not just a personalized queue of movie and TV show recommendations.

Speaking of facial recognition, biometrics are hot at CES, too. Not only has NameTag just released an app for Google Glass that can recognize people out in the real world by their online dating profile picture—assuming they use a real one—but it will also cross-reference the National Sex Offender Registry and criminal databases so you get a heads-up on potential bad matches.

What are the privacy implications for an app that picks out sex offenders on the street in real time?

One group claiming to have privacy top-of-mind in the biometrics space and with a big presence at CES this year is FIDO, the Fast Identity Online Alliance, which is biometric authentication “designed with a core focus on privacy,” where “biometric and/or personally identifiable information stays local on the user’s device and is not shared to the cloud or over the network.”

Computerworld reports that dozens of new personal tech products at CES are employing this FIDO authentication, including devices from Yubico, Agnitio, FingerQ and more that use fingerprints and voice to provide secure computing on the desktop and on mobile devices.

But biometric information isn’t just for authentication anymore. A slew of new products track biometric information for a variety of purposes, from figuring out your mood to helping you track your health.

Sony, for example, made a big splash with the unveiling of life-logging software that charts a person’s entire life on an “interactive timeline.” And Sony is trying to get out ahead of privacy questions. “Sony treats the security and privacy of our users’ personal data with the utmost stringency and integrity,” the company told BBC. “We make it absolutely clear what data users are submitting, how it is being used and provide them with option of opting out before proceeding.”

Here's how Sony is pitching the product to the world at large:

The Washington Post reports on this trend by noting that the explosion in wearable devices that can track biometric features has been enabled by cheaper and smaller sensors: “Devices embedded into clothing and on wristbands or earbuds allow the tracking of even mundane activities such as cooking, listening to music and reading.”

This technology is “also testing new boundaries on privacy.” Again, this article notes the NSA’s ability to peek at this kind of data stored by private companies. How will consumers adopt this kind of technology in light of NSA revelations, even if they are attracted to tech like “cars that recognize their owner’s voice to start engines and direct turns and stops, all hands-free”?

These questions will need to be answered shortly, as smart cars are coming in a big way. Just in time for CES, a new GAO report on in-car location services like Garmin, OnStar and Google Maps says these firms need “to do more to inform consumers how they use and share location data.”

The GAO report looked at 10 companies. Nine of them share data with third parties but don’t make it clear why the data is being collected and shared.

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) requested the GAO report and found the results to be somewhat satisfying, noting that “companies providing in-car location services are taking their customers’ privacy seriously … [but] … people across the country need much more information about how the data are being collected, what they’re being used for and how they’re being shared.”

Also just in time for CES, Google announced the creation of the Open Automotive Alliance, which will focus on bringing the Android operating system to “the ultimate mobile device”—the car.  Initial partners include Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai and NVIDIA.

Perhaps, then, it’s a good thing that there’s some Android privacy news at CES, too. A New Hampshire firm, SnoopWall, announced at the event its SnoopWall for Android app, which it says “uniquely blocks eavesdropping in real time [and] protects your webcam, microphone, GPS, Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi and other high-risk data ports automatically.”

According to the press release, SnoopWall addresses a Google privacy problem with apps permissions controls that were eliminated when Google removed its App Ops feature from Android OS. 

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