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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
27 Jan 2015
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The Internet of Every Damn Thing

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Federal Trade Commission head Edith Ramirez put the matter plainly: "If I'm wearing a fitness band that tracks how many calories I consume, I wouldn't want to share that data with an insurance company."

In a study last year, the FTC found that 12 mobile fitness apps shared information with 76 enterprises. Face it; personal gadgetry tied to the Internet is selling data about your habits to businesses — and in ways you have no idea about.

These devices now range from home burglar alerts to apps that turn off the porch light to toothbrushes. As of this year, there will be 25 billion such things.

Hence, the FTC has just suggested some guidelines for neat but sneaky gear. They're in a new report, titled "Internet of Things: Privacy & Security in a Connected World."

I'd sort of given up on the privacy part. The choices have become so complex that I apply a simple rule. Anything I absolutely don't want the world to see, I don't put online. Period.

My Facebook friends know they will never see a look-what-I-just-bought post. As for my Web surfing, my life is not an open book, but if someone should disclose my interests, I'd be OK. I have an excuse for everything.

The potential problems arise with those very useful apps that need my personal information to do their job. Sure, I want Google Maps to know where I am. And if I had some serious medical condition, I'd want a monitoring device communicating with my doctor. But there's a dark side: Some evil being could invade this data flow and change the medical settings.

I don't see why my movie ticket app should always know my whereabouts. Fandango gives us two choices on giving it access to our location. One is "Never," and the other is "Always.

Access to your location will be available even when this app is in the background."

Fandango thoughtfully provides a five-page privacy policy written in fluent legalese. It includes a discourse on its use of "Pixel Tags," invisible files on the Web pages you visit. The point is that few consumers wade through these privacy policies, and even fewer have the faintest idea what they're talking about.

The electric company sends me reports on my energy use and how it compares with that of neighbors. My most virtuous months seem to be those in which I'm not at home. My vacation schedule is unbeknownst to the company, I hope.

The FTC report calls for new rules governing the sort of information Internet-connected devices may collect, how it is used and how secure it is. This is a valiant effort, and I wish the regulators luck. But if hackers can break in to movie stars' private photo files, what can we realistically do to protect our secret stashes from prying eyes?

Smartphone sensors can already guess a user's sour mood, aggressive personality, pathetically low level of physical activity, sleeping difficulties and other behavioral patterns. And such snooping is perfectly legal.

In the end, consumers will have to decide: How much is the convenience of turning up the heat at home before leaving the office worth? What drives me nuts is all the thinking and research we have to do in balancing the trade-offs — and the attention that must be paid to various app settings.

The only current solution is to unscrew what you want kept private from the Internet. If you've forgotten how to use paper, you can put the information on a device not connected to the Internet — and then trip over the plug. Five minutes spent on some app's privacy policy may convince you of the wisdom of primitive living.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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