Expo highlights promise, peril in Web-linked world


Mon, Mar 03, 2014 - Page 14

We are in the beginning of a world in which everything is connected to the Internet and with one another, while powerful yet relatively cheap computers analyze all that data for ways to improve lives.

Toothbrushes tell your mirror to remind you to floss. Basketball jerseys detect impending heart failure and call the ambulance for you.

At least that is the vision presented last week at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona, Spain. The four-day conference highlighted what the tech industry has loosely termed “the Internet of things.”

Some of that wisdom is already available or promised by the end of the year.

Fitness devices from electronics giants Sony Corp and Samsung Inc connect with smartphones to provide digital records of daily lives. French startup Cityzen Sciences has embedded fabric with heart-rate and other sensors to track your physical activities.

Toothbrushes linked to the Internet are coming from Procter and Gamble Co’s Oral-B business and from another French startup, Kolibree. The mirror part is still a prototype, but Oral-B’s smartphone app does tell you to floss.

Carmakers are building in smarter navigation and other hands-free services, while IBM and AT&T are jointly equipping cities with sensors and computers for parking meters, traffic lights and water systems to all communicate.

Internet-connected products represent a growth opportunity for wireless carriers, as the smartphone business slows down in saturated developed markets.

With the technological foundations here, the bigger challenge is getting people, businesses and municipalities to see the potential in the incipient field. Then there are security and privacy concerns — health insurance companies would love access to your health and fitness data to set premiums.

At a more basic level, these systems have to figure out a way to talk the same language. You might buy your phone from Apple Inc, your TV from Sony Corp and your refrigerator from Samsung Electronics Group. It would be awful to get left out because you are not loyal to a single company. Plus, the smartest engineers in computing are not necessarily the best in clothing design and construction.

Expect companies to work together to set standards, in the same way that academic and military researchers created a common language decades ago for disparate computer networks to communicate, forming the Internet. Gadgetmakers are starting to build APIs — interfaces allowing other systems to access and understand their data.

Building everything is too much for a single company, yet “they want all this stuff to work together,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, a backer of the Tizen project for connecting watches, cars and more.

Samsung’s new fitness watches will use Tizen, and tools have been built to talk with Samsung’s Android phones.

As for persuading customers to explore new products, IBM executive Rick Qualman said the emphasis now is on pilot projects to demonstrate the benefits, such as better deployment of equipment and personnel during a natural disaster.

At the Barcelona show last week, Zelitron, a Greek subsidiary of Vodafone Group PLC, showed how retailers can keep track of refrigerators used to dispense bottled drinks. The system tracks temperatures and inventory and knows if a fridge is inadvertently unplugged.

Meanwhile, Cityzen hired athletes to demonstrate its connected fabric by playing basketball. Data fly to a smartphone app using Bluetooth wireless technology.

Gilbert Reveillon, international managing director for Cityzen, said he has had interest from a UK car insurance company and Chinese hospitals. Health data can tell you whether you are fit to drive and can call paramedics in an emergency.

Some customers might worry about security, given recent breaches compromising credit and debit card numbers at Target and other major retailers.

Determined hackers seem to constantly find loopholes. Imagine someone spying on you remotely through security cameras in your home or tricking your home security system into believing your car is approaching, so it opens your garage door automatically.

AT&T emphasizes that it uses encryption and other safeguards for its connected services, which include security monitoring and energy-efficiency controls in homes.

Glenn Lurie, AT&T’s president of emerging enterprises and partnerships, said the US wireless carrier goes through extensive security certification and exceeds industry recommendations.

Reveillon said any data sharing by Cityzen will be in aggregate form, with users’ identities removed. He said individual users could decide to share more information, but that would be up to them. He said French government regulators are quite strict about that.

However, US government regulation is not, and a US government subpoena is typically enough to override any promises of privacy. Once the information is available, privacy advocates say, it is tempting to find other uses for it.

Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard University, said it is difficult for people to say no when presented with immediate benefits because any potential problems are vague and years away.

“Information seems harmless and trivial at the moment, but can be recorded forever … and can be combined with other data,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve come to terms with that yet.”