Privacy has always required a delicate balancing act. We want to enjoy the benefits of technology, but we don’t want that technology watching us — too closely.
And even when we strike the right balance and are finally comfortable in our relationship with one technology, new innovations come along to start the conversation all over again.
As the head of an association that represents more than 2,000 consumer-technology companies in the U.S., this is not the future I see. Yes, there are real concerns about the ever-growing quantities of data that our devices produce. But increasingly, information abounds that will provide enormous good for society, and we shouldn't have to give permission to let it be used.
For example, on my wrist I wear an electronic band. It monitors my activity level, sleep pattern and heart rate. I use that data to make healthier choices. Device makers have access to the same data. They use the data to improve their products, give me recommendations and help me understand how I’m doing compared with other people. That data even helps researchers.
During a recent earthquake in California, wearable maker Jawbone was able to map how far in each direction the earthquake was felt, based on data collected from its devices. Knowing immediately and precisely how far the earthquake traveled could provide great societal benefit in determining the appropriate governmental response and planning for future earthquakes.
Access to more information increases our ability to make important discoveries. Sensors are being paired with smartphones to measure food intake, body temperature, activity, sleep, health and soon, blood composition, enabling researchers to correlate various behaviors with illnesses. They will be able to map out the flow and spread of disease, provide predictive information on whether you are getting sick and what behavior you can take to reduce your risk of illness. Sensors in our cars, beds and chairs will provide similar information, but these insights will not be possible without quick, efficient and transparent data management.
Or consider the data that will be generated by our cars. Ride-sharing company Uber is sharing trip data with Boston city officials to manage urban growth and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions — a first-of-its-kind partnership. Insurance companies are charging lower insurance premiums to drivers who willingly share their driving data. Parents are getting information on their teenagers’ driving habits. In these cases, the free market works to balance privacy interests. If I do not want to give my information to the insurance company, I do not get the discounted premium. A teenager may not want her parents knowing how she drives, but her parents may make that a condition of driving.
Some information that can be collected from my car really isn’t private, and sharing it provides a public good. For example, if my windshield wipers are moving, that information, when combined with windshield-wiper activity from millions of other cars, can deliver data that’s valuable to meteorologists and may be life-saving to other drivers.
And what can we do with the information collected when my car drives over a pothole? This information might be collected and aggregated in real time and provided to local governments — as well as to drivers behind me approaching the same potholes. Our cars’ onboard navigation systems should be able to collect and aggregate this data, along with location and other information about every air-bag deployment and collision. Wouldn't it be helpful to municipalities if they could identify easily where they had frequent collisions, or to drivers approaching dangerous intersections?
Some companies, and even our government, have changed what they are doing because of privacy issues. Google Glass’s facial-recognition component would have been a wonderful feature to help those like my mother who suffered from Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, detractors decried this feature as a privacy violation, and Google withdrew the feature from its product. As someone who is so name-challenged that I am often embarrassed when I cannot remember the name of someone I’ve met before, I can’t wait for a company to introduce a product to help me connect names and faces.
We need to have a balanced conversation about privacy and public interest, one that communicates these benefits to consumers and policymakers while taking into account consumer concerns about privacy and security.
Achieving that balance motivated our association to start a conversation among consumers, industry and regulators about the privacy and security of the data generated by connected fitness devices. The result is our just-released Guiding Principles on the Privacy and Security of Personal Wellness Data.
Companies have worked hard to put privacy policies in place to protect wellness data, but wellness-related devices and services are still a nascent market. The principles laid out by our organization are designed to encourage companies to move in a common direction that balances innovation with positive consumer privacy outcomes.
These principles are baseline, voluntary guidelines for companies that handle personal wellness data. Rather than trying to be comprehensive, the guidelines focus on actions that we recommend companies take in response to consumer privacy concerns and tangible risks. Our goal is to foster consumer trust by encouraging companies throughout the wellness-data ecosystem to handle personal wellness data similarly.
Our privacy is sacred, but it should not be sacrosanct. Some details about us are more private than others. Our vital signs, our windshield-wiper action, our cars hitting potholes, and whether we are awakened by an earthquake — this information should be weighed against the value to society and our own safety in sharing this type of data. Black-and-white rules may be easy to enforce and give us comfort in complete privacy, but we should be willing to give up tiny parts of our privacy in exchange for a safer and healthier world for us and our fellow citizens.
We need to have an honest, open and realistic dialogue about what we value in society and are willing to trade for absolute privacy. If we can share information to make the world safer and keep us healthier, then perhaps we should.
Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, NinjaInnovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and TheComeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro