Day 2 of CES comes to a close, and two trends from Day 1 remain: I saw more robots that do face recognition, and I remain underwhelmed. Today, I walked the cartoonishly huge Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), which was dedicated to automotive technology, more robots, more health tech, displays, and accessories. The LVCC is different from the Sands, which I walked on Day 1, in that it’s full of big, established manufacturers: Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Mercedes, Jaguar, Qualcomm, Volkswagen, and so on. The Sands had smaller companies, startups, and university-supported products. After two full days of walking the convention, the technology that made the strongest showing was:

  • Virtual Reality
  • Drones
  • Robots
  • Camera products
  • Automotive (inside the cockpit)

Honorable mention goes to gesture control. I was surprised by the poor showing of health-oriented products. There were plenty of fitness products, but these were the ho-hum Fitbit-like wearables we’ve seen for some time now. I’m not a gamer, but I was quite impressed with the immersive VR tech I played with.

At the intersection of health and automotive was Mercedes. They put sensors in the steering wheel of one of their cars to detect heart rate. If the car determined that you were stressed, it could alter the interior conditions: lighting, music, and – I kid you not – aroma. The glove box contains a scent cartridge that it would introduce into the airflow system to aromatherapy you back to your happy place. Mercedes took the idea that ‘technology companies are really lifestyle companies’ a bit too far – the car offers you suggestions on how to live a fitter, healthier existence based on what it detects and knows about you. Being alone in a car can be a place of respite… I sure as heck don’t want to be nagged about my sloth while I’m driving an expensive car to In-N-Out Burger.

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Day 2 was replete with robots. LG seems to want to bring WALL-E to life with its airport information robot, lawn mower robot, and household ‘Hub robot.’ Robots from less well-known manufacturers were also in full force, and as I mentioned in yesterday’s wrap-up, face recognition appears to be de rigueur. Wavebot, which looks like something you squeeze to plop out cookie dough or raw falafels, was being marketed as a butler/watchdog that continually roams your house. Both it and other robots on display were not working because of the usual convention WiFi failures, so I didn’t really get a sense of their value… or likelihood of killing me and my family because the face recognition broke. My big takeaway was: The Age of Household Robots is nowhere near.

However… virtual assistant technology seems to be galloping at a rapid clip. I saw several integrations of Alexa into non-cyclindrical devices. Volkswagen introduced it into their cars, LG put it in a fridge, and a small robot named Lynx allows Alexa to bumble around your house and wave at you. Toyota built its own chirpy virtual ‘companion’ named Yui that merges the virtual assistant with self-driving. Unsurprisingly, this was merely a concept demo. Sidebar: all of these virtual assistants are so nice. I’m from New York originally – will someone please build me an Alexa/Siri mod that makes it cranky and profane? “Siri, what’s the temperature?” “Stick yer friggin’ head out the window and check yourself, ya schmuck.” “Thanks, Siri… you feel like family.”

Qualcomm showed off a super tiny camera and sensor, which seemed ideal for integration into… well… anything. The person I spoke to mentioned toys, and after December’s ugly story about wildly insecure IoT toys that can be used to spy on children, this development made me more concerned than excited.

Ultimately, I found Day 2 less satisfying than Day 1, in large part because the big manufacturers are trotting out incremental product advancements, rather than the risker, more interesting technology that smaller companies are launching. On the whole, CES failed to excite me; I am aware that writing that puts me at odds with lots of other analysts who want to tell you how amazing everything is. Still, a few things inspired me, a few surprised me, and some products just seemed stupid.

With regard to privacy, this was a Consumer Electronics Show, and so the products were mainly ones that we would bring into close contact with our lives – on our person, in our cars, and in our homes. So, for me, the privacy issues raised are:

  • Encroachment on intimacy: household robots, toys and other near at hand objects with cameras and other sensors means increased collection of intimate moments and activities.
  • Further disappearance of surveillance technology: smaller cameras means less awareness of being monitored and recorded.
  • Normalization of child surveillance: cameras in the home and toys means much more collection of children’s behavior and interactions.
  • Expansion of stakeholders: decreasing costs to include cameras, microphones and other monitoring devices means it’s easier for new entrants into technology markets to introduce monitoring features. Will those new entrants know how to handle intimate personal data respectfully?

I expand on these concerns in my report, Privacy and the Internet of Things, which you can download for free from O’Reilly. And, while CES didn’t impress very much, I at least did not see things that filled me with terror. I did find a bust of Siegfried & Roy, which made the whole trip worthwhile.

Conference Connected Cars Data Ownership Drones Intimacy Security Smart Home Toys User Control Wearables

Privacy and consumer watchdog groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about toys that are insecure enough to be used to spy on children easily. The targets of the complaint are Genesis Toys, the maker of My Friend Cayla and i-Que, and Nuance Communications, a third-party provider of voice recognition technology who also supplies products to law enforcement and the intelligence community. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Center for Digital Democracy, the Consumers Union and others have jointly filed the complaint, which boldly states in the introduction:

This complaint concerns toys that spy. By purpose and design, these toys record and collect the private conversations of young children without any limitations on collection, use, or disclosure of this personal information. The toys subject young children to ongoing surveillance and are deployed in homes across the United States without any meaningful data protection standards. They pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States.

The complaint requests that the FTC investigate Genesis Toys for several problematic issues, ranging from easy unauthorized Bluetooth connections to the toys within a 50-foot range, to the difficulty of locating the Terms of Service. Many findings appear to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and FTC rules prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices. These include collection of data from children younger than 13, vague descriptions of voice collection practices in the Privacy Policies, and contradictory/misleading information regarding third-party access to voice recordings.
 
Cayla’s companion app invites children to input their physical location, as well as their names, parents’ names, school, and their favorite TV shows, meals and toys. The complaint highlights that it’s unclear how long the manufacturer will hold this data, and if they will ever delete it even if requested:
The Privacy Policies for Cayla and i-Que state that Genesis does not retain personal information for “longer than is necessary.” The scope of what is “necessary” is undefined. Genesis permits users to request deletion of personal information the company holds about them, but advises users that “we may need to keep that information for legitimate business or legal purposes.”
Disturbingly, the complaint notes that each of the toys can be heavily compromised by two unauthorized phones working in tandem:
Researchers discovered that by connecting one phone to the doll through the insecure Bluetooth connection and calling that phone with a second phone, they were able to both converse with and covertly listen to conversations collected through the My Friend Cayla and i-Que toys.
BEUC, a European consumer organisation, have today joined the effort against the manufacturers by complaining to the European Commission, the EU network of national data protection authorities, and the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network.

It should be noted that Danelle Dobbins, then a Master’s student at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote about Cayla’s glaring security problems in a 2015 paper. Dobbins draws attention to the work of Ken Munro, a security specialist who hacked Cayla at the beginning of 2015 as seen in the below video (via the BBC).

The complaint further notes that children are being surreptitiously marketed to:

Researchers discovered that My Friend Cayla is pre-programmed with dozens of phrases that reference Disneyworld and Disney movies. For example, Cayla tells children that her favorite movie is Disney’s The Little Mermaid and her favorite song is “Let it Go,” from Disney’s Frozen. Cayla also tells children she loves going to Disneyland and wants to go to Epcot in Disneyworld.

This product placement is not disclosed and is difficult for young children to recognize as advertising. Studies show that children have a significantly harder time identifying advertising when it’s not clearly distinguished from programming.

The toys’ voice recognition feature comes from Nuance, who also offers products and services to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The most disturbing element of the complaint is the suggestion that children’s personal data and interactions could end up being used in the development of Nuance’s intelligence and law enforcement products:

Nuance uses the voice and text information it collects to “develop, tune, enhance, and improve Nuance services and products.”… Nuance’s products and services include voice biometric solutions sold to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies…. The use of children’s voice and text information to enhance products and services sold to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies creates a substantial risk of harm because children may be unfairly targeted by these organizations if their voices are inaccurately matched to recordings obtained by these organizations.

This could be one of those moments that causes a policy reaction. While negative press may have an impact on the individual companies and their sectors, the only methods that can truly help prevent more of these kinds of unsafe products is regulation and the threat of lawsuit. Let’s hope that policymakers and regulators use this opportunity to scare other toy makers, demonstrate the power of sanction, punish the bad actors, and increase the potency of data security and children’s safety regulation.

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