Participants in this year's Consumer Electronics Show in
These products have the potential to improve consumers' lives, but they rely on streams of sensitive data about health, habits and location of users, or even about unknowing bystanders. Companies can aggregate and analyze these data in any number of ways. The question is: Will consumers have any control over how companies use their data?
The problem is that consent is not informed in any real way. Consumers are told about proposed collection and use of their data in "terms of service" and "privacy policies" that obscure more than they reveal.
On top of that, companies often change their policies, sometimes with little notice. And then there are situations when even today's inadequate protections don't apply, for example, when a company collects data from those who respond to a customer's e-mail or when a cloud data firm pulls information on passersby from photographs others upload.
For those more concerned about government surveillance and its impact on their privacy, recall that the U.S. and other governments can use legal means -- warrants and subpoenas -- to obtain the data these companies collect. Even if there are reforms to surveillance authorities, this will continue to be true. The more that companies collect, aggregate and analyze sensitive data, the more potentially is available to the government.
Some government agencies, such as the
But more is needed to make the principle of informed consent function once again. One way to do that might be to borrow from the FTC's approach and focus on consumers' expectations. The less expected a proposed use of data is, the more clear a company must be about what it is planning.
How would this work? When consumers buy a device or download an app, they expect the company will use their data to improve the user experience. If they buy a smart thermostat, they will expect the device to use data about their habits to make their energy use more efficient. If this is all a company plans, it should have a relatively light burden in informing customers. Current practices would be fine.
But when companies plan to use their users' data for profit, selling to advertisers or other third parties, they must inform consumers directly and far more clearly. That means they cannot bury the notice and they must write it in readable language. (The Nottingham researchers used Fifty Shades of Greyas a model of readable language. We prefer, perhaps,
Finally, the highest standard should be for third-party data, information from bystanders who have no relationship with the company. In that case, companies should be required to go out and get positive consent before using the data.
This is one idea for how to make the principle of informed consent work even as we move from the smartphone to the smart house, car and clothes. Doubtless there are others. But as we discuss the ways in which government surveillance impacts the privacy of Americans and others around the world, we must pay attention to this issue as well.
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