It’s Coming From Inside The House

Screenshot 2023 01 12 at 4 21 05 PM

Every year, in the week after New Year’s Day, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) sets up in almost every corner of the massive Las Vegas Convention center. The trade show normally (as in not during a pandemic) hosts tens of thousands of people who are there to see the latest tech gadgets companies plan to release in the near future.1

The coverage of this event is so big that even news programs on local TV often have reports from the floor of the show showing off what’s new. But those segments, and the thousands of stories that flooded tech sites, fail to mention things like security, user privacy, and environmental impact.

One rare exception was one piece in the Washington Post noting that “It’s 2023, and tech is still pushing unsafe products”.

American shoppers, regulators and companies face a problem: Tech products often hit the market with giant safety and privacy flaws.

At the same time, CES, a giant annual consumer electronics exhibition in Las Vegas, brings a flood of new gadgets. It might be pouring gas on a fire, privacy and security experts say.

“I think there is a chronic problem with consumer electronics, that they are not giving people the full picture that they need to evaluate whether they want to use these tools,” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the privacy rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

While organizations like the EFF and iFixit (which advocates for reparability and recycling of electronic devices) try to spotlight the potentially bad aspects of many products being introduced, they are generally swamped by a flood of “best of” stories and best lists.

There’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical of these new products and their promotional claims. As we’ve seen, tech companies normally don’t allocate many resources to making their products secure and safeguarding user privacy. Until, that is, something happens to land them in the spotlight.

With few exceptions, tech companies address safety when problems arise rather than taking more time to test products and build in safe features, said Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) director Jen Easterly, in an interview on the sidelines of CES.

These companies’ incentives are “really focused on cost, capability, performance and speed to market, and not on basic safety,” she said.

Almost every week, it seems as if we read of data being released from another company. Like photos taken by a Roomba that were posted to Facebook. Or a security camera that sent “captured images of the camera feed and detected faces” to a cloud service even when that option was turned off.

So, how secure are the many more devices from CES that feature always-on cameras and microphones? Plus units that collect more personal data,  like a diagnostic toilet. And does anyone need a “$200 travel mug with location-sharing capabilities and an irreplaceable battery”?

I’ll admit that I don’t read every word of every terms of service agreement before clicking the I accept button. But I also know that the tech companies don’t write those things to my advantage. They need vast amounts of information about users to make these devices appear to be smart and entice people to buy them.

Collecting that data doesn’t come cheap, especially if they had to ask permission first. As a result, the default setting at these companies is to grab as much of it as possible and hope nothing goes wrong.

It’s no surprise then that Mark Zuckerberg’s original motto, “move fast and break things”, has been embraced by many of these developers.

The marketing photo shows a combination personal air purifier and noise canceling headphones from Dyson. It retails for around $1000. I have no idea if it’s internet connected or AI-powered, but this is just one of many “visions of the future” from CES that should be ignored.

1. I lived in Las Vegas from 1977 to 1986 and managed to snag a guest pass to the show almost every year. In those days the emphasis was on ever larger television sets (projection TVs were just the thing to fill up your living room), fancier video tape recorders, new-to-the-market CD players, and computer games.

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