CES 2013: Mobility gurus acknowledge privacy concerns, but worry about the impact of legislation

There is a growing discontent over digital privacy issues, but legislation would have a chilling effect on the development of new apps and ecosystems. That was the conclusion of a panel entitled "The Smartphone-Tablet Economy: Apps, Devices, Commerce and the Consumer Obsession" today at CES.

MORE: CES 2013: Products to watch for

Google's head of mobile solutions, Matt Dorfman, said that major companies are learning lessons in privacy -- the hard way.

"I think it's a good thing when Google makes a mistake with privacy; Apple tries something that users don't like, because I think users will tell us what they want when it comes to privacy, as opposed to some potentially draconian legislation," he said.

*

Plenty of innovative products depend on the ability to shift between devices interchangeably, and consumers increasingly expect their services to be platform-agnostic.

"The fact that I can watch Hulu on my PC, but if I move two feet to pick up my tablet and try to go to Hulu, it wants me to pay a monthly fee seems wrong," said John Shapiro, a senior product manager at Adobe.

Mobile practice lead and Senior Vice President at Digitas Chia Chen echoed the point from the perspective of marketing and advertising, saying that "fragmentation" of platforms is a problem for some clients.

"If [DoubleClick] served all the ads," he said, giving a hypothetical example, "you could track everything from ... TV ads to the things that you saw on your connected tablet and smartphone."

All-encompassing tracking of that sort, of course, is precisely the kind of thing likely to raise the hackles of privacy advocates, and the panelists agreed that ensuring the protection of consumer information was a "complex" challenge.

"If you're not paying for something, you are the product," said Shapiro. While consumers increasingly have the option to "pay" for products or services with personal information or social data, they don't have much control over how much of that information they share, he continued.

*

Part of the problem for companies, according to Alcatel-Lucent Director of Emerging Technology and Innovation Nash Parker, is that some consumers have a laissez-faire attitude toward protecting their personal information.

"It's hard to protect people that don't want to be protected. ... The younger millenials, if you want to call them that, they don't care about privacy," he said.

This raises the potential for abuse, Parker added. "If they're not going to demand that kind of protection, the networks are smart enough that you can track everything, and everybody, and everything about everybody."

Chen, however, downplayed this risk, arguing that it's difficult to "connect the dots." He acknowledged, however, that "the train has left the station" as far as possible government regulation is concerned in many jurisdictions.

"The scenario that we ... fear [will] happen in the next 12 to 18 months is that there will be legislation that will prohibit us from actually doing things with the data that we would want to get done ... just because there's a few bad players out there," he said.

*

While the panel seemed generally opposed to the idea of legislation on online privacy issues, most acknowledged that the problems are real.

"I think consumers maybe feel like there is a very significant level of encroachment on their privacy to the benefit of these large companies," Chen said.

Shapiro agreed, saying that "companies do themselves a pretty big disservice by making all their privacy policy changes in 30-page legalese."

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

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