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Privacy Tech | CES 2019: Did the tech hype surpass privacy concerns this year? Related reading: California’s CCPA forums are underway: Here’s what happened at the first one 

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CES 2019 has come and gone, and I've flown back from a perfectly comfortable Las Vegas to a chilly New England that's about to get walloped by a mountain of snow.

After taking in as much of the conference as I could, it feels like where privacy stood at CES is an accurate representation of how privacy may be a priority for a growing number of companies and industry professionals, but not necessarily for your average Joe. Tech companies and startups are becoming more aware about the importance of privacy, especially as they face hefty fines from regulators and a growing number of privacy laws. For your normal conference attendee, however, the dazzling technology on display is paramount to everything else. I can't blame them. Technology is very exciting! The massive curved video screens at the LG booth were so cool, I almost forgot I was there to work, not to gawk. 

This observation seemed apparent when I polled representatives on the show floor. I referred to a prediction made on the first day of the conference by Consumer Technology Association's Steve Koenig, who said tech companies may "rub up against" questions about data handling and privacy on the show floor.

My conversation with Ledger Vice President of Operations David Ballard emphasized this divide. Ledger displayed its Nano X, a crypto-based piece of hardware that allows users perform transactions safely. Did Ballard receive any questions about privacy? No he did not. When I asked why he thought that was, he said people are more excited about tech than any residual worries.

This picture doesn't do it justice.

Perhaps this also colors some of the observations in the media. In an interview with NPR, Mashable tech writer Pete Pachal said tech hype surpassed the conversation about data privacy concerns at CES. In nearly the same breath, NBC News reported privacy was "the" buzzword at this year's conference.

Talk about a stark divide.

I tend to lean toward "buzzword" personally. Privacy was featured prominently in several sessions I attended on day one, and a session about U.S. privacy law later in the week. Plenty of startups at Eureka Park emphasized their privacy capabilities.

Mycroft, for example, exhibited its privacy-minded voice assistant. It functions similar to other voice assistants on the market, however, it places an emphasis on privacy by design. Mycroft Executive Assistant Johnny DeMaddalena said the device does not store any voice data it receives, so users do not need to worry about having their information shared with other companies. DeMaddelna added the majority of the device's software is open-sourced and can be found on GitHub.

"I think this week has been really telling, and from some of our previous events, it's definitely apparent that ... the general consumer base is aware of what's going on, or they are not totally aware, but they are getting there, and they understand that their data is important and that privacy is important to them," said DeMaddelana. 

Demaddelana's sentiment may be true, but he is also working with a privacy-centric product. The attendees who are interested in Mycroft likely value privacy. For the conference attendee who wants to look at the latest in computers, cars and virtual reality, privacy doesn't seem to be front of mind, at least not yet.

When I asked representatives from larger tech companies whether they received any questions about privacy, the consensus seemed to be mostly no. An Amazon representative said she did not hear any privacy questions, and neither did a rep from Intel. A representative from Samsung said he received one question: "Where does the data collection end?" But that was it. 

Say hello to Mycroft.

Panasonic β Lead Experience Design Angelique Lang said she was surprised she hadn't received more questions about privacy. The company showcased HomeX, a new platform designed to consolidate a user's smart home devices on one network. She said Panasonic β sells products in Japan and is aware of the legal obligations it faces; however, as it prepares to start offering its services in the U.S., the company will be ready to tackle a new set of compliance obligations, including the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. 

The CCPA may be a key to whether privacy may grow in stature when CES 2020 gets rolling next January. As I wrote in an earlier piece, the GDPR was a far better known concept this year compared to last. And now that it's law, many companies had it top of mind. Similarly, the CCPA is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, only a few days before CES 2020 kicks off. I would be willing to bet privacy will take another big leap when that happens and even more so should a federal U.S. privacy law get passed. 

Future of Privacy Forum CEO Jules Polonetsky, CIPP/US, summed it up rather nicely when we spoke after his panel on U.S. privacy law concluded. He said he was optimistic about the future of privacy at CES and pointed to fledgling companies as the most likely entities to pave the way for privacy going forward.

"I predict that next year we will see perhaps a section of privacy startups selling their wares to other companies just like you see startups who want sell to mobility and who want to work with IoT players," said Future of Privacy Forum CEO Jules Polonetsky, CIPP/US. "It's good news that privacy is becoming good business. The challenge is to make sure that what is being sold is not puffery and that real value is being provided by the new technologies that benefit consumers."

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