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Privacy Perspectives | The Future of Privacy: My Journey Down the Rabbit Hole at SXSW Related reading: Next gen of health devices seeks to harness 'untapped potential' in data they collect



For a first-timer, SXSW is one overwhelming experience. I’d imagine it’s still overwhelming the second, or even the third, time, too. With thousands of attendees—from advertisers and entrepreneurs to musicians, filmmakers and movie stars—spread out over most of downtown Austin, TX, the vibe is palpable, and the means for distraction ubiquitous. Not only are the streets filled with flash-mob marketers and street-side musicians, the array of SXSW Interactive sessions is astounding.

I quickly realized I was not going to be able to see everything while down there, but even so, I had a chance to see some amazing people discuss amazing concepts. The future is here—and for privacy, the future will bring a new bevy of privacy issues.

First off, privacy had a strong presence at SXSW Interactive. There were several sessions on Privacy by Design, for example. This was important because so many of the attendees were into coding and designing software, apps and new digital services. Other sessions focused on anonymous surfing online, or post-Snowden youth activism. IAPP President and CEO Trevor Hughes, CIPP, led a discussion with the CPOs from Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

I was even lucky enough to be on a panel with NYU’s Karen Levy, the CDT’s Joseph Lorenzo Hall and CitizenMe CEO StJohn Deakins to discuss the protean line between innovative and creepy services. With the vast amount of innovation underway right now, determining how to manage privacy risks in an era of rapid change—not just with technology but social norms as well—is a difficult task.

And let me tell you, there is some technology coming our way that has some serious potential creep factor. Observing this new future was like an unfamiliar journey down the rabbit hole.

Intelligent Packaging or Going “Phygital”

Luckily, I got to this session early because the room filled to capacity to see the latest thinking around smart packaging. Clearly, layered, digital packaging has the potential to be big in the near future. This concept could very well help brick-and-mortars compete with online retailers for sure, but, once again, I wondered if privacy was being baked into some of this technology.

Resource Chief Technology Officer Dan Shust stressed to the audience, many of whom seemed to hang on his every suggestion, “Phygital” is the new packaging and promises to personalize an in-store shopping experience like never before. Phygital packaging, he noted, can help brands know “the millisecond someone is holding my product.” The brands, in turn, should think about what they can give back to the consumer that is personal. Together with a consumer’s smartphone, and in some cases other wearables, packaging can help provide a more integrated, digital experience for the consumers.

Phygital packaging aims to place a virtual reality-like digital layer over the physical. Shust intimated that phygital products could ultimately provide the computer screen in front of consumer eyes. “This will become the new web,” he added.

In many cases, however, data such as geolocation, gender, time, weather and purchase history would be collected. There are some impressive uses that can certainly benefit consumers. For example, packages containing nuts could warn those who suffer from severe nut allergies. This could easily be applied to other health concerns as well. Of course, this use of information—particularly geolocation and health—raises privacy concerns, so hopefully companies employing such tech will consider privacy protections and make such services opt-in. Additionally, Shust said the technology wouldn’t be limited to packaging. He said, for example, it could be used in snowboards to help users find each other to hang out socially at a given mountain. The question is, would those other snowboarders have opted in to such location identification?

Personalized Robots

We often discuss the privacy issues inherent in the rise of the Internet-of-Things (IoT) ecosystem, but I was blown away by other technology coming down the pike. First off, social robotics are here and have the potential to dramatically change our lives. Cynthia Breazeal gave a keynote on her work with social robotics and the Jibo project.

Not familiar with Jibo? Well, here’s a glimpse:

It’s pretty clear there will be a slew of privacy issues with personalized robots like Jibo, but I will say, Breazeal made a compelling case for the ethical use of social robots. She said social robots can become the hub between the IoT and healthcare realms. As chronic health issues such as obesity outpace the number of healthcare workers, social robots have the potential to act as life coaches—a sort of fitness tracker on steroids. According to Breazeal’s research, humans react positively from this type of reinforcement.

Social robots will also have the potential to engage children to develop language skills. Again, according to her studies, children’s interactions with “curious robots” yielded a higher learning gain. They learn to engage these social robots like friends and improve their vocabulary.

Breazeal acknowledged the ethical concerns found in social robotics and urged a dialogue to flesh out these concerns. She also stressed that social robots are not meant to replace human relationships but to partner with humans and should “support human empowerment.” She also listed other serious considerations here:

Of course, there are some obvious privacy concerns with this technology. Jibo, for example, can take photos, tag faces, stream video and connect to the Internet. Like other IoT technology, this opens the way for data breaches of highly sensitive information, hacking from bad actors (I'd hate to think of what a hacker with bad intentions could do when Jibo is interacting with children, for instance) and whether collected data is transferred to third parties for advertising or data brokerage.

I could easily see a future Federal Trade Commission roundtable on the privacy, security and ethical uses of social robotics. Stay tuned.

Our Changing Identities

In addition to the aid of personalized robots, our very identities may undergo a paradigm shift in the future. Our genetics, brainwaves and our very memories may be up for grabs.

I had the chance to listen to transhumanist Martine Rothblatt discuss her views on artificial intelligence, immortality and our future selves with New York Magazine’s Lisa Miller. (Here’s a more in-depth article written by Miller on Rothblatt.) Having attended several sessions in Exhibit Hall 5, none matched how fully packed this auditorium was to hear the highest paid female CEO in America.

She is known for quite a few things—including bringing the world Sirius Satellite radio—but she is also known for her beliefs in a transhumanist future, where we can upload our memories into cyber versions of ourselves. She has even created a robot version of her wife, called Bina48. These “mind clones” can express mirror versions of someone’s personality, manners and attitudes.

Indeed, it being Brain Awareness Week, we are getting closer to an era when we can read brainwaves. Berkeley’s School of Information, for example, has released a “first-of-its-kind” synchronized brainwave research dataset.

Unlike Alice in Wonderland, or science fiction novels featuring smart robots, this is no longer make believe. This is becoming real and brings with it all the privacy and ethical concerns for a future cadre of privacy professionals.

It should be exciting, to say the least.

photo credit: Alice in Wonderland Ride via photopin (license)


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