Whenever I say the word "privacy" to many of the presenters at International CES, there's a little sigh before they answer. The thing to get excited about at this year's show, after all, is the connection of everything to the internet, so you can track how much energy your lightbulbs use or how you hold your toothbrush.
Keeping information to yourself? You can almost see the thought bubble above their heads: "Luddite."
But if you, like me, are sick of being told your reluctance to share everything sets you against the flow of progress, there is a place for you at the massive tech show -- first floor, South Hall, just past the Alibaba booth. These, my friends, are our people.
This is the first year that privacy-focused products have had their own part of the floor, which itself may be taken as evidence that privacy, particularly on mobile devices, is something that everyone should be thinking about. It’s a small space. There are only nine exhibitors here, a tiny fraction of the roughly 3,600 out on the show floor hawking their products. There are no flashy demos here, or booth babes in skimpy clothing. It's not a place that will draw crowds. Safety wallets and virtual private networks are just not as fun to watch as a 3D candy printer. But it is is pulling in a steady stream of people, young and old, who want to know how reconcile their love of gadgetry with the desire to keep some things to themselves.
Sure, the average person probably isn't going to encrypt their messages. But more Internet users are now taking small, deliberate steps to protect their privacy online and the very notion of privacy has started to become a selling point on its own.
Part of the drive behind that change, exhibitors here say, is simply that people have had to learn to take security matters into their own hands. The growth we’re seeing with personal privacy products could be because consumers are finding -- thanks to the rise in identity theft, hacks and massive data breaches -- that companies aren’t always good stewards for their information. If you want something done right, as the old adage goes, you have to do it yourself.
Vysk, which makes encryption software and cases that let you slide a cover over your cameras when you're not using them, has seen a uptick in interest since hackers breached celebrity iCloud accounts and posted personal pictures from those accounts online. PIA, which sells a service to let people set up their own private networks, has also seen a change in its customers over the past few years, said employee Joseph Craig. In the past, most of the company's customers had been young men -- now they're seeing a broader base of customers -- women and older adults -- sign up for their private networks.
Other exhibitors offer their own theories on why privacy products for individuals have grown in profile enough to have their own section this year.
“It’s the Snowden effect,” said Aaron Zar, chief executive and founder of Peeled Group, referring to the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed government surveillance programs to the world in 2013.
Zar's company makes a line of wallets and cases called Silent Pocket, which blocks radio waves by essentially creating a stylish tinfoil hat for your phone. The slim leather cases are lined with a special sort of foil that blocks cellular, bluetooth, WiFi and just about everything else, so you can't get any calls or messages while your phone's in the bag. Zar said that the cases are popular not only for those times when you don't want to be tracked, but also when you just want to take a moment to disconnect.
The idea of disconnecting at CES is an anathema. There are products at the show designed specifically to track your eating habits, where you’re looking, and even your brain waves. There are drones that can follow you no matter where you go. I chuckle when I notice the Kodak booth across from Vysk is showing off its home surveillance system -- and I can just make out a camera pointed in our direction.
But it's not productive to think of it as a battle, in which these few companies are holding down the fort for privacy against the rest of the show. The whole point of the privacy area, and of many of the products being shown there, is that technology and privacy don't have to fight. They can actually help each other. And these exhibitors -- the few, the proud, the private -- are happy to be here, preaching that message.
“It’s nice that CES would make space for us here; for those of us who think about technology a little differently,” said Zar.