CES 2015: four scary key tech trends

CES 2015 was a superb event in terms of new stuff per square foot, which has been referred to numerous times by tech website reporters. As for me, a person

CES 2015 was a superb event in terms of new stuff per square foot, which has been referred to numerous times by tech website reporters. As for me, a person fully immersed into the world of information security, I left the show with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, CES demonstrated key trends awaiting us 5-10 years from now: smart home, connected cars, virtual reality, biometric/healthcare body sensors – the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ at its best.

On the other hand, the degree of off-handedness in how developers and vendors treat users’ data was striking. Beside scarce exceptions, I noted absolute negligence of such important aspects as privacy, security, and encryption.

The market is eager to run forward, preaching the ‘Internet of Everything’ mantra. All the relevant questions like ‘What kind of data will be collected?’, ‘Who and how will be receiving data?’ and, of course, the main question, ‘Will we be asking a user whether s/he is keen on giving away data?’, are either being ignored or asked in the manner a vendor wants them to be asked.


Every time I asked these simple questions in the corridors of CES, I would get a strong feeling I am in the midst of Storm Troopers whom Emperor Palpatine has just ordered to execute ‘Order 66′. In the best scenario, people would take me for a madman saying “Dude, what are you talking about? We are talking a multi-billion worth market – users will have to accept privacy violations, anyway!”

Quite likely, they will. But as it comes to me, I am really enraged by any attempt to steal my right for privacy. This is why I decided to write this post and draw your attention to four key controversies which are going down the way this CES’ tech trends, evolve.

1. Driverless cars

To be honest, I don’t think we really need driverless cars that much. The key marketing message this strategy relies on is decreasing human factor in car accidents and, ultimately, eliminating them at all. Well, looks like a very legitimate reason, but there are several issues.


The first problem concerns the labor market and employment. Obviously, the first entities to join the line of organizations eager to use driverless cars will be taxi companies. In New York alone, the taxi fleet includes about 40 thousand cars. In the entire world, their numbers are unimaginable, but we can safely add three more digits to make up a plausible number.

If millions of low-wage employees will be deprived of their hard but honest job, this would significantly contribute to growing crime rate all over the world. Curiously, I have never seen no analytical reports addressing these two closely interconnected trends.


But the above situation represents just a part of a bigger problem. In order for driverless cars to exist, the stats are crucial – and this statistical information would consist of zillions of gigabytes of data on routes, users, traffic load, etc.

The driverless car, however a common user sees it, does not ‘learn’ to drive on its own: it just operates the statistical data to generate behavioral patterns, depending on the surrounding environment and conditions. These patterns result from the analysis of enormous quantity of accomplished scenarios. Who will ‘feed’ all this data to computers? Or course, ‘we the users’, there’s no one else to do it.

All the data on our transportation, i.e. the way we act, where we turn, and, most importantly, where and when we go, will be sent to… erm, somewhere.


For quite a long time, this fact never provoked any questions. But the recent Uber debacle proved this ignorance was not for long: people cannot help but care that some undefined agent is able to detect their precise location in real time. And, which is even more alarming, he can accumulate the ENTIRE history of translocations in a person’s ENTIRE lifetime.

In theory, the developer of driverless cars and taxis would try to protect user data from scammers. But the stakes are really high, so this attempt may be unsuccessful. The problem now lies within whether or not to trust the service providers. Offering data security and protection is a complex and science-intensive business where the majority of service providers just lack competence. Trusting their ability to properly secure data is like entrusting a child with a million dollars.

I do not say driverless cars are all that bad. I just want to convey the message that, before deploying and commercializing this tech, one should ensure that there is legislation in place to protect collected user data, and that service providers offer users a reliable and transparent means of fully wiping out the data from the provider’s databases should there be need.

2. Drones

This year CES was packed with drones. These little robots become more and more affordable, and are available now for as little as £149. The majority of drones are equipped with cameras (or are GoPro or smartphone-mountable). Smart stabilization algorithms, sensor-based piloting and navigation system – everything is in place and continues to evolve, except one thing: regulation of flights and legislation on violation of privacy.

A quick search on YouTube provides enough evidence drones are frequently used for mischief, including spying through the windows, stealth surveillance and many not so childish pranks. This topic was well covered by the journalist John Oliver:

Given the fact there is no proper regulation for drones, they might be used in practically any scenario. So, don’t be surprised if you discover a couple of drones hovering opposite your balcony and recording videos.

Today drones are no big threat, but this is just for now, when the tech has not evolved that much. And we all know how fast it evolves, don’t we?

3. Healthcare/fitness sensors

I have encountered 17 companies offering fitness trackers at CES this year. Needless to say, there are way more of them: fitness bands capable of counting steps, heartrate of other biometric parameters are produced by dozens of major vendors and small start-ups and are widely available on the market.

I was one of the early adopters of this type of gadgets. After having spent a couple of years with these gizmos, I am fully positive they are completely useless for fitness purposes.

Life is way simpler than this. If you want to go jogging, just go for it. Want to slim down? Just stop eating junk and start jogging even harder

As soon as the first ‘wow’ effect fades away, the reality strikes back, and you realize that life is way simpler than this. If you want to go jogging, just go for it: race track equipment in the gym will tell you how many miles you ran. Want to slim down? Just stop eating junk and start jogging even harder. An able coach or a specialized website will help you to develop your personalized routine.

Fitness bands are not a cure-all for your problems – you won’t be a better runner just wearing it. But the very problem of the sensors is not their existence but the data they generate. And, of course, the latter is beneficial for many third parties.

All the relevant questions would seem quite innocent, but today, one can identify a person based on the analysis of several arrays of biometric data.

This is not necessarily bad, and this approach may end up as a means of replacing obsolete password-based authentication methods for example. The real problem is that anyone might be using our — yes, our! — personal data precisely now, but not us.

One more question arises: how well will this data be protected? Really, we are all sick and tired of hearing the news over and over again: some bad people have stolen batches of data from an honest megacorporation which just happened to have collected enormous amount of personal data from its customers.

4. Smart home

Another key trend of CES 2015 is the next generation of homes where lighting, HVAC, locks, fridge, stove, and everything you can find in an average home is connected and equipped with a controller deployed on a mobile device.

Again, this coin is two-sided. What connected home advocates usually show off at trade events is apparent convenience of such tech at home. But the reverse side of the coin is that, in fact, everything can be hacked. No system is 100% secure – the likes of Stuxnet, Gauss, Duqu serve a continuous reminder that even uranium enrichment centrifuges are not safe from trespassers.

In an event of a hacker breaking into your connected home, the culprit may get access to everything you have, from a history of you fridge’s ‘correspondence’ with Wal-Mart to telemetric data, surveillance videos, credit card numbers and tons of confidential data unthinkable for an average mortal.

Today, the most paranoid users use tape to patch their laptop webcams – just because it has been proven that someone can spy on you through a remote connection. If we speak of smart home, you will quickly run out of tape to patch all sources of data.

P.S. Having returned from CES 2015, I started to better understand Ray Bradbury who, decades ago, preached that tech innovations do not play a major role in humanity’s cultural and intellectual development, comfort and, most importantly, happiness. Really, there is nothing wrong with turning off the lights with old-fashioned switch. Manually.