Commentary

Most Consumers See Privacy Threats In Smart Devices, Study Says

Most consumers appear concerned that the Internet of Things -- smart TVs, in-car navigation systems, energy smart meters, and other devices that are connected to the Web -- poses a potential privacy threat. That's according to a TRUSTe report published today.

The privacy management company based its report on a February survey of 2,000 adult Web users. When researchers told the survey respondents that their Web-enabled devices could collect data, the vast majority -- 87% -- said they were concerned about the type of personal information gathered. Almost the same proportion -- 85% -- said they would want to know more about data collection before using “smart” devices.

At the same time, people's concern about the Internet of Things turned on who the information would be shared with. Most respondents -- 63% -- said they were comfortable sharing data with their spouses, while 41% said they would be comfortable sharing Internet-of-Things data with close friends. But just 14% were comfortable sharing such information with ad companies, while only 19% felt okay about allowing market researchers to access the data.

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TRUSTe said in a statement that consumers' privacy fears “could be a potential barrier” to the Internet of Things' growth. The company noted that fewer than one in four -- 22% -- of respondents thought the benefits offered by smart devices outweighed the privacy threat.

The research comes at a time when regulators are just beginning to examine the Internet of Things. The Federal Trade Commission brought its first Internet-of-Things enforcement action last September, against the company Trendnet. The company offers IP cameras, which enable customers to access live video feeds of their homes. But the company allegedly didn't adequately secure the feeds. The result was that strangers were able to access footage of customers' homes.

The agency said that Trendnet engaged in deceptive practices, because it touted its Webcams as secure; the FTC also alleged that Trendnet's inadequate security procedures constitute an unfair act or practice. Trendnet agreed to settle the complaint by establishing a security program, and notifying affected consumers.

Soon after that settlement, the FTC convened experts to discuss the privacy implications of the Internet of Things. The agency also sought public comment. One group to respond, the digital rights organization Center for Democracy and Technology, asked the FTC to support “fair information practice principles” for the Internet of Things.

“The greater potential for privacy violations requires a more rigorous application of these time-honored concepts,” the group said this January. Fair information principles generally require companies to limit their collection and use of consumers' data

“There is nothing intrinsically magical about the Internet of Things: the primary features are simply increased surveillance capabilities and Internet connectivity from devices consumers don’t normally think of as having those abilities,” the CDT said in its comments.

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