Privacy rights activists worry about potential abuse of high-tech devices featured at CES event

January 10, 2012

The thousands of devices debuting Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show here demonstrate how tech companies are poised to gather unprecedented insights into consumers’ lives — how much they eat, whether they exercise, when they are home and who they count as friends.

Silicon Valley is in a gold rush for information, highlighted by Google’s announcement Tuesday that it would incorporate data posted by users on its social networking service into the results of its main search engine.

Tailoring services and ads for consumers is where tech firms sees future riches. Today, computers, smartphones, social networks and new devices — such as health-oriented gadgets and Web-connected televisions — show the potential of companies to peer into ever more aspects of daily life.

Coming soon are Internet connected refrigerators, washing machines and other appliances that may be able to deliver information to third parties, such as utilities.

All that has some tech experts and lawmakers concerned that consumers, in their rush to snap up the latest gadgets, may be sacrificing privacy.

Tech companies say they won’t use personal data without permission from consumers. But some analysts say there aren’t many checks on these firms.

“Consumers need to think more about how their data is being sent outside the home in more ways than ever and not get caught off guard when that data lands in the hands of unintended third parties,” said Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank.

Google announced new Internet TV partnerships with Sharp and LG that put its software such as YouTube and Chrome browser onto living-room screens. Google says the TVs will compile what people are watching but only to serve up video recommendations.

Microsoft’s Kinect game console collects some biometric information that Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said on Monday is a potential springboard for health-care and other industries.

“We are collecting data second by second,” said Tivo Senior Vice President Tara Maitra in a panel on Internet advertising strategy on Monday. She said the TV digital video recording company doesn’t target individuals but uses information about what shows its 250,000 subscribers are watching to help marketers place ads for Tivo users.

LG was among several companies to showcase “connected homes,” where appliances are connected to one another as well as energy grids via the Web. Scan a receipt onto your smartphone and that information will be sent to your refrigerator, which will serve up a recipe based on the grocery list. That recipe is then sent to an oven that pre-programs your oven to preheat at the recipe’s suggested temperature. And if you are doing a load of laundry at the same time, your “smart” energy meter will suggest cooking later so you can save energy.

“We are putting privacy first and the data here will be kept on the appliances and not pushed to the cloud,” said LG Electronics spokesman John Taylor, whose smart refrigerators and stoves will debut in the United States later this year.

While the companies argue that the data collection is harmless, some lawmakers want them to be upfront and specific about what is being collected.

“There needs to be clarity around how and when that information is collected, stored or transmitted that takes into account a consumer’s right to privacy,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has introduced a privacy bill that would prevent tracking of children online without specific permission.

Related:

Consumer Electronics Show: Complete coverage

CES 2012: What is an ultrabook, anyway?

PHOTOS: Cool gadgets unveiled at CES

Microsoft’s $100 challenge to CES attendees

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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