What if “Internet of Things” Doesn’t Include the Privacy Thing?

We all got a glimpse of a smarter if not better future at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month in the Nevada desert. Smart cars, smart watches, smart TVs and refrigerators, smart washers and dryers, smart baby clothes, and every other manner of smart device.

The problem, as we mark Data Privacy Day today in 29 countries, is we don’t know how to live as smartly as our technology does. Just last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, British Telecom CEO Gavin Patterson said we can’t be guaranteed privacy when using the Internet or mobile devices. He and other industry leaders called for changes to “murky” laws on data collection.

“It needs to be transparent and there need to be clear guidelines about what’s acceptable and what isn’t … The legislation has to catch up.”

Instead the gap seems to widen every day. Many of the privacy-busting products at CES are already on the market or will be very soon. Technology advances much faster than our ability to anticipate and plan for its effects, which leaves us scrambling to figure out how to harness the horse long after it has left the barn.

And so we have an Internet of things long before we have considered who owns the rights to your digital footprints, or your smart home settings, or your baby’s respiration and diaper-change frequency, or even your face.

Imagine the implications of your baby’s smart onesie – an Internet-connected piece of infant clothing – getting hacked. The smart onesie begins shipping this week. It’s real.

Or consider the new facial recognition app NameTag. It allows a user to take a picture of a stranger and mine that person’s online presence. Maybe NameTag makes it easier to flirt on the subway, but it’s also a stalker-friendly technology with enormous potential for evil.  Google has banned the use of facial recognition on its Glass hardware – laudable forethought of the risk — but the restrictions can and likely will be skirted.

All this means communication professionals with agile minds, an innate understanding of how information flows, and a predisposition to connection and engagement have never been more valuable. They are needed at the leadership table, before the genie is let out of the bottle.

It’s no wonder Ketchum professionals around the world predicted privacy-as-currency will be a major trend in 2014. That’s the idea that consumers will consciously choose to provide information in exchange for goods and services.

But bartering only works if you have something with which to barter.  You can knowingly agree to provide information about yourself in exchange for something you value – a fair, transparent transaction. But we live in a world of negative option surveillance. Unless you specifically opt out – and do so with a lot of rigor – your movements in the real and digital worlds are treated as free for the taking. “What’s murky about some of what is happening today,” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said at Davos, “is people don’t necessarily know what data is being collected and about what is being used.”

So, international Data Privacy Day can’t come a moment too soon. While the tension between invention and social policy isn’t new, the pace of change is unprecedented and it’s only going to get faster.  With each new app or gadget, the natural tension grows between innovators – “information wants to be free” – and policymakers. Those who would protect what might already be an anachronistic view of free and fair society are left trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube.

Perhaps at next year’s CES, we’ll see a device that shields individuals from negative option surveillance and brings back anonymity. A 21st-century cone of silence?  Then we could choose to barter our privacy away in a fair and transparent transaction.

Until then, there will be no shortage of complex communication issues for a good PR counselor.

Note: Samantha Campana, a colleague at Ketchum Canada, also contributed to this article.