Privacy is front and center at CES as execs from Apple, Facebook, others debate key tech issues

Privacy experts speak at CES 2020. From left: Moderator Rajeev Chand, Partner and Head of Research at Wing Venture Capital; Erin Egan, VP Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer for Policy at Facebook; Jane Horvath, Senior Director, Global Privacy at Apple; Susan Shook, Global Privacy Officer at The Procter Gamble Company; and Rebecca Slaughter, FTC Commissioner. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is viewed by many as the pulse of the technology industry. The issues explored by speaker sessions, and the newest gadgets unveiled on the showroom floor, provide insights into the state of technology and where it’s headed.

As public awareness of the vast data economy grows, privacy and surveillance are key issues at CES this year. There are more than a dozen privacy-themed sessions this week.

Tuesday’s Chief Privacy Officer Roundtable was one of the most buzzed-about sessions — in part because of the participation of longtime CES no-show Apple.

Apple’s senior director of global privacy, Jane Horvath sat on the panel alongside Facebook’s chief privacy officer for policy Erin Egan; Proctor Gamble’s global privacy officer, Susan Shook; and Rebecca Slaughter, commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission.

The four privacy experts had a lively debate on one of the most discussed and confounding challenges for the technology industry. Read highlights from the panel below and check out all of our CES coverage here.

Facebook on the defensive

Egan fielded some of the most difficult questions because of the data privacy issues that have dogged Facebook since the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal. The company has implemented changes since that breach, in which the data company was able to use information on Facebook users to push political agendas without their knowledge. Facebook has also established additional privacy controls to comply with new regulations, like the California Consumer Privacy Act that took effect this month.

But the company is still in the hot seat. Facebook received the toughest privacy penalty the FTC has ever levied last year, though many, including Slaughter, said it didn’t go far enough. The company is now under investigation by the FTC for potential antitrust violations.

Facebook privacy lead Erin Egan. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

When asked about Facebook’s data collection practices, Egan went on the defensive.

“I take real issue with the idea with what we do at Facebook, the advertising that we serve, is somehow surveying people,” she said. “We work so hard to be transparent. Surveillance connotes surreptitious activity that people don’t know about. We work hard to be transparent.”

Egan didn’t back down later when pressed on whether Facebook collects too much personal data on its users.

“We are not,” she said. “We adhere to the concept of data minimization. We collect what we need to serve people. We give people control and choice over that data, and we’re clear with people about it, and we work to de-identify.”

Zeroing in on location data

Investigative reporting over the past few months has revealed how pervasive, and sometimes insidious, location data sharing has become. The latest report to make waves came in the form of a New York Times project called One Nation, Tracked.

The Times discovered one of many datasets with specific location information on millions of Americans. The tracking was so precise, Times reporters could pinpoint trips that looked a lot like extramarital affairs and job interviews with competing companies.

Asked about the report, Proctor Gamble’s Shook said not all location data sharing is nefarious.

“You can have location data that’s being used at macro levels,” she said. Shook gave an example. Her firm might collect zip code data in order to find women living in humid climates who might be susceptible to advertising for humidity-fighting hair products.

Slaughter countered:

Consumers don’t always know. How does a consumer know that PG is doing exactly what it says with its data when a lot of what happens in data sharing goes on in this opaque infrastructure behind the scenes? … Different types of data are more and less sensitive. Location data is certainly highly sensitive data that merits certain types of protection. De-identification sounds like a really good idea. The problem … that the article illustrated is de-identification is only meaningful if data cannot be re-identified.

The year of surveillance tech and privacy

The focus on data privacy at CES this year reflects growing concern among consumers about how their information is collected and used. But a parallel — or perhaps paradoxical — trend is also playing out this year.

Surveillance tech is all over CES, as AP reports. Smart home devices, face scanning, DNA testing, and other tech that improves our ability to collect information on one another is all over the showroom floor.

Ring’s booth at CES 2020. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Amazon-owned Ring is leading the pack. The maker of smart home security cameras and doorbells has a big presence at CES this year. Ring unveiled new privacy protections ahead of the event, following incidents in which hackers broke into customers’ cameras and harassed them. Several affected customers filed a lawsuit last week against Amazon seeking class action status.

But enthusiasm for tracking tech does not seem to be mutually exclusive with privacy concerns, as Egan showed during the privacy panel.

“As we all know, the landscape is evolving,” she said. “For example, I got this amazing Ring doorbell system. I’m here at CES. It’s a snow day back in D.C. I have no idea who’s going to come to the door when my kids are home, and I can see that. That’s hugely, hugely valuable, but the question is, what do people expect … about how their data is being collected and used? That’s something that is hard, and that’s something that’s going to take constant work to make sure that people understand what we’re collecting, and how we’re using their data.”

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