CES 2016: In the smart home, the user is the one kept in the dark about data

CES 2016: In the smart home, the user is the one kept in the dark about data

The CES show floor isn't officially open for business yet, but between the CES Unveiled event yesterday and the press conferences today, a few themes are emerging:

1. "Smart" is ubiquitous, in everything from shoes to cars to appliances to wearable devices.

2. The real value in these smart gadgets and appliances is in logging or acting on data. The value proposition for the user is this: By giving the "smart" system a certain dataset, the product promises to make your life easier or more pleasant. And sometimes, the product gives you data that you can act on.

What is not emerging? Any open disclosure as to what all those companies are going to do with the data they collect on you and how your use their products.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I talked with the folks at Smarter. Their mats are meant to monitor the weights of the assorted groceries in your pantry or refrigerator. Then, when the volume on your salsa or your Speculoos or your barley dips low, the mat pings your phone, which in turn pings you with a reminder to buy more. According to Smarter, a feature of this system is its location-awareness; as you pass Trader Joe's, your smartphone alerts you that hey, you just happen to be by the great Speculoos-and-salsa store, so pick some up.

Let's itemize some of the information that goes into that if-then-Speculoos sequence:

1. The types of food you have in the house

2. How frequently you consume an individual unit of those foodstuffs

3. Where you are at a given point in space and time

4. Whether or not you replenished your food within a 24-hour period of receiving a location-based alert

The user activity ("did the person act on the alert or ignore it?") is valuable and useful information to Smarter, because it tells them whether this feature is valuable and worth maintaining or improving. It may seem a little creepy to have a service monitoring your shopping habits, but if you're all for some third party doing the work of keeping tabs on your groceries, this is the trade-off.

But I found myself wondering: What would Smarter do with the data about what's in my pantry and how often I start using, stop using or replenish items? The company's mentioned partnering with grocery and food delivery services. Would they bring aggregated user data to the table, telling would-be partners, "We can break down our user base by how often they buy specific groceries, and you can craft custom offers and tiered pricing based on that data?"

And what about the location data? By loading the app on my phone and keeping it on, I'm effectively committed to broadcasting data about where I am going and where I've been, all to a third party who is not telling me what they will do with my records or whether they'll sell that data or turn it over to interested parties.

In the press room this morning, another reporter was talking about smart devices -- the ones that give you oodles of raw data on your sleep habits or compile a history of your heart rates. He asked, "Who needs all that data?"

Another pair of questions to ask: Do we know what data we're generating for our smart devices? And why don't we know how the companies that suck up all that data are going to use it?

I like convenience. It would be nice to discover that I'm all out of milk before I open my fridge door. But it would be even nicer to know how the service which told me I'm out of milk is also using my milk-consumption logs. A little transparency in data use would be a big leap forward in consumer protection.

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