Privacy, please: Latest gadgets want greater peek into lives

UW professor says the industry is trying to figure out the right balance between services and privacy.

By Rachel Lerman and Joseph Pisani / Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The latest gadgets want even greater access to your lives.

This week’s CES tech show in Las Vegas was a showcase for cameras that can livestream the living room, a bathroom mirror that captures your face to offer beauty tips and a gizmo that tracks the heartbeat of an unborn child.

These features can be useful — or at least fun — but they all open the door for companies and people working for them to peek into your private lives. Just this week, The Intercept reported that Ring, a security-camera company owned by Amazon, gave employees access to some customer video footage.

You’ll have to weigh whether the gadgets are useful enough to give up some privacy. First, you have to trust that companies making these devices are protecting your information and aren’t doing more than what they say they’re doing with data. Even if a company has your privacy in mind, things can go wrong: Hackers can break in and access sensitive data. Or an ex might retain access to a video feed long after a breakup.

“It’s not like all these technologies are inherently bad,” says Franziska Roesner, a University of Washington professor who researches computer security and privacy.

But she said the industry is still trying to figure out the right balance between providing useful services and protecting people’s privacy in the process.

AMAZON’S VIDEO FEEDS

As with other security cameras, Ring’s can be mounted outside the front door or inside the home to give you a peek, through an app, of who’s there. But the Intercept said the Amazon-owned company was also allowing some high-level engineers in the U.S. to view customers’ video feeds, while others in the Ukraine office could view and download any customer video file.

In a statement, Ring said some Amazon employees have access to videos that are publicly shared through the company’s Neighbors app, which aims to create a network of security cameras in an area. Ring also says employees get additional video from users who consent to such sharing.

At CES, Ring announced an internet-connected video doorbell that fits into peepholes for apartment dwellers or college students who can’t install one next to their doors. Though it doesn’t appear Ring uses facial recognition yet, patent records show that Amazon recently filed an application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras.

LIVING ROOM LIVESTREAM

It’s one thing to put cameras in our own homes, but Alarm.com wants us to also put them in other people’s houses.

Alarm’s Wellcam is for caretakers to watch from afar and is mostly designed to check in on aging relatives. Someone who lives elsewhere can use a smartphone to “peek in” anytime, says Steve Chazin, vice president of products.

The notion of placing a camera in someone else’s living room might feel icky.

Wellcam says video isn’t recorded until someone activates it from a phone and video is deleted as soon as the stream stops. Chazin says such cameras are “becoming more acceptable because loved ones want to know that the ones they care about are safe.”

Just be sure you trust whom you’re giving access to. You can’t turn off the camera, unless you unplug it or cover it up with something.

BATHROOM CAMERAS

French company CareOS showcased a smart mirror that lets you “try on” different hairstyles. Facial recognition helps the mirror’s camera know which person in a household is there, while augmented-reality technology overlays your actual image with animation on how you might look.

CareOS expects hotels and salons to buy the $20,000 Artemis mirror — making it more important that personal data is protected.

“We know we don’t want the whole world to know about what’s going on in the bathroom,” co-founder Chloe Szulzinger said.

The mirror doesn’t need internet to work, she said. Even if it is connected, all data is stored on a local network. The company says it will abide by Europe’s stronger privacy rules, which took effect in May, regardless of where a customer lives. Customers can choose to share their information with CareOS, but only after they’ve explicitly agreed to how it will be used.

The same applies for the businesses that buy and install the mirror. Customers can choose to share some information — such as photos of the hair cut they got last time they visited a salon — but the businesses can’t access anything stored in user profiles unless users specifically allow them to.

BODILY DATA

Some gadgets, meanwhile, are gathering intimate information.

Yo Sperm sells an iPhone attachment that tests and tracks sperm quality. To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test. The company says data stays on the phone, within the app, though there’s a button for sharing details with a doctor.

Owlet, meanwhile, plans to sell a wearable device that sits over a pregnant belly and tracks the heartbeat. The company’s privacy policy says personal data gets collected. And you can choose to share heartbeat information with researchers studying stillbirths.

Though such data can be useful, Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo warns that these devices aren’t regulated or governed by U.S. privacy law. She warns that companies could potentially sell data to insurance companies who could find, for instance, that someone was drinking caffeine during a pregnancy — potentially raising health risks and hence premiums.

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