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CES 2018’s Hot New Trend: The Total Death of Privacy

Security camera robots dance at a Las Vegas gentleman’s club during CES 2018

GettyMandel Ngan/AFP

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What if, by using a hidden tracker or a smart bracelet, you could monitor your child’s location from home to school and anywhere in between? What if you could use brain-wave technology to tell exactly how much attention they pay in class? What if you could program your car to prevent certain (teen) drivers from traveling beyond a preset boundary, monitoring their speed and reporting back their location all the while? What if, at the push of a button, you could turn on a camera to see what’s going on in that very car?

These are four very real pitches—for Tabs, BrainCo, Derive Systems, and Raven, respectively—at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that proudly position invasion of privacy as a main feature.

these gadgets explore interpersonal privacy invasion: Someone you know, watching you right now.

Privacy and technology have been at odds for years, of course. From ad-tracking by social media giants like Facebook to the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden, we’ve been reckoning with the not-quite-slow-but-very-steady erosion of privacy norms for years. This year’s slate of gadgets, however, represents a different front in the war.

Mass surveillance is ubiquitous but abstract: A faceless organization is collecting digital breadcrumbs automatically for automated tracking or investigation at a later date. Alternatively, these new gadgets explore the invasion of interpersonal privacy: Someone you know may be watching what you are doing, right now.

It should come as no surprise that almost all of these devices target parents who want to spy on their children—a rare case where heavy-handing, it’s-for-your-own-good surveillance could feasibly fly. Still, it’s easy to imagine how it goes wrong. Black Mirror illustrated exactly that in its recent episode “ArkAngel,” where this sort of tech proves so invasive that (spoilers) it ruins lives and becomes illegal in-universe. And frankly, that episode is a little on-the-nose.

If you’re not a teen with especially nosy and tech-savvy parents, you likely have nothing to fear—at least not yet, not directly. But a culture of mass surveillance defeatism has helped to pave the way for increasingly invasive tech. The NSA’s already watching. Facebook already knows. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. What fresh invasions might these gadgets embolden if they become the new norm?

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Thanks to machine learning and facial recognition it’s becoming easier than ever to sort through mountains of video footage. As a result, mass surveillance and interpersonal privacy invasion are on a collision course. At its press conference this year, Panasonic touted its work on a facial-recognition payment system that can identify and track repeat customers. Amazon’s experiments with brick and mortar stores are in the same vein, though the award for the creepiest vision of this sort of surveillance probably goes to Microsoft, with its comprehensive vision of the privacy-free future from earlier this year.

The steady encroachment on privacy is not always so overt. Take Buoy, an AI-powered system that tracks your water usage to ferret out leaks and keep your bills down. In order to spot aberrations, it learns the normal cycle of water usage in your home—what a shower’s worth of water is, or how a toilet flush looks in your pipes. As a result, one representative mentioned off-handedly, it learns your bathroom habits as a matter of course, up to and including whether folks are (or aren’t) washing their hands.

Welcome to 2018, where not even the bathroom is safe.

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