At the start of each New Year, the technology industry puts on its biggest show highlighting the possibilities of the future: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The excitement and optimism that comes with the start of a New Year dovetails nicely with the dreams and promises on display at CES. There’s no other show that gives us a peek into the bright future of technology like CES. But this year’s CES has a dark undercurrent. Lurking behind some of the most exciting products being showcased this year, wearable devices, are serious privacy and security concerns. As the Internet of Everything (IoE) fast approaches, the stakes around privacy and security are getting higher.
One of the big buzzwords around this year’s CES is “wearables”, short-hand for “wearable computing”. Wearables comprise a range of devices that you actually wear on your person. Wearables include things like Google Glass, wearable video cameras, smartwatches, fitness bands, and even jewelry. Wearables promise to take the freedom and connectivity that mobile computing has given us to a whole new level.
But as we connect ourselves more and more to the internet, literally, it’s important to be mindful of the risks and implications of these new devices. Fitness bands that monitor and capture information about our movement using GPS can provide a malicious user with details about our daily routines and patterns as well as our current location. The ability to easily (and perhaps nearly invisibly) video tape people raises important questions about the expectation of privacy in public places.
Beyond these questions around data protection and privacy, there’s the huge security question of what the security implications of connecting these kinds of devices to the Internet will be. Every time we connect a new class of device to the Internet we learn the hard way how they can be attacked and subverted. The story of former United States Vice-President Dick Cheney’s doctors disabling the wireless capability of his heart pump for fear of terrorists subverting it gives a stark picture of what the cost of failure for some devices could be. We’ve seen security flaws enable attackers to hijack webcams on laptops; it’s reasonable to assume that wearables with video capture capabilities will be similarly vulnerable. How can you know who’s watching the video capture from your friends Google Glass set?
That’s not to say wearables are fundamentally unsafe or a threat to privacy. But it is to say that security and privacy need to be priorities in these discussions. We need to temper our enthusiasm of a bright future with the lessons of the hard past. We’ve already repeated the security mistakes of the PC era with mobile devices. We still have a chance to not make the same mistake once again in the IoE era. But time is running out: the future is almost now.