Technology’s benefits vs. (privacy) costs

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Anick Jesdanun and David Hamilton

This year, consumers will be entrusting even more of our lives and intimate details to our technologically advanced cars, homes, appliances and even toys — and to the companies that build them.

Are we ready for that?

You might, for instance, like the idea of turning on your TV with a spoken command — no more fumbling for the remote! But for that to work, the TV needs to be listening all the time, even when you’re not watching. That means even when you’re discussing something extremely personal, or engaged in some other activity to which you’d rather not invite eavesdroppers.

How much should you worry? Maybe your TV never records any of your casual conversations. Or maybe its manufacturer is recording all that, but just to find ways to make the TV better at understanding what you want it to do. Or maybe it retains everything it hears for some other hidden purpose?

You may never know for sure. At best, you can hope the company keeps its promises on privacy. More important, you have to trust that its computer systems are really secure, or even those promises can suddenly become worthless. That part is increasingly difficult to guarantee — or believe — as hacking becomes routine.

Technology pros and cons

Indeed, every technological benefit comes with a cost in the form of a threat to privacy. Yet not paying that price has its own cost: an inability to participate in some of technology’s helpful achievements. 

Because smart gadgets thrive on data — data about you and your habits, data about what large numbers of people do or say or appear to want in particular situations — it’s difficult not to share pretty much everything with them. Doing otherwise would be like turning off your phone’s location services, which disables many of its most useful features.

The consequences aren’t restricted to phones and TVs:

• Kids will be able to talk to more toys and get personalized, computer-generated responses. Does the “don’t talk to strangers” rule apply if the stranger is the Hello Barbie talking doll or Dino, the dinosaur powered by IBM’s Watson artificial-intelligence system?

• Cars will work with GPS technology and sensors in parking meters, roads and home appliances to help route you around traffic and turn on your living-room lights as you approach the driveway. But that can also generate a detailed record of your whereabouts.

• Thermostats from Nest and other companies will get smarter at conserving energy when you’re away. Potential burglars might find that information handy.

• Home security cameras are getting cheaper and more plentiful, but they’re sometimes insecure themselves, especially if you set them up without care. There’s already a website that streams video from cameras that have no passwords.

• Wearable health devices will track your heart rate, fitness levels and more — and share achievements with friends and family. But slacking off may carry a heavier cost than those extra holiday pounds if your insurance company yanks discounts for not meeting fitness goals.

Incremental loss of privacy

The pending onslaught of privacy trade-offs might seem trivial when it comes to a talking — and listening — Barbie doll. But maybe it’s less so when your phone knows enough about you to remind you it’s time to leave for an important interview (if the alternative would be losing a shot at that job) or your smart home can really tell you if you turned off the oven before leaving for an international trip.

“The encroachments on our privacy are often self-inflicted, in the sense that we will accept the trade-off one bit at a time,” said John Palfrey, co-author ofInterop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems.

And these trade-offs can be quite subtle. Technological advances typically offer immediate, tangible benefits that, once you’ve put enough of them together, can indeed revolutionize daily life. Can you imagine living your life without a smartphone?

In contrast, the risks tend to be diffuse, abstract and often difficult to ascertain even if you’re paying attention. In a recent study, the Pew Research Center said about half of American adults have no confidence that they understand what’s being done with their data, and about a third are discouraged by the amount of effort needed to get that understanding.

In short, convenience usually wins. Shiny new things are inherently attractive, and it takes a while for some of us to get uneasy about the extent to which we may be enabling our own surveillance.

Humans have made this bargain with technology for some time. When cameras were invented, legal scholars debated how far you can go snapping pictures of people in public. That’s no longer an issue — although the camera on a drone in your backyard is.

Step One in managing interactions with our newly smart digital companions comes down to simple attentiveness. Grandparents, for instance, can be actively involved in what their grandkids are doing — in this case, by taking the time to review and delete conversations from ToyTalk’s website.

Step Two might be learning to say no. Many services ask for birth dates, phone numbers and even income levels just because they can — and few people resist.

If enough people rise up, companies will stop. There’s precedent: So many people fed up with online ads have turned to ad blockers that websites are taking steps to make ads less annoying.

There will always be a trade-off, but the balance can shift

— AP