Some believe Orwell’s dystopia is an all too likely future, not too far off. On top of government spying programs, the dawn of the ‘Internet of Things’ – ubiquitous, everyday devices designed to reduce the need for human intervention – they say puts consumers at further risk of privacy invasion, personal data exploitation and even physical damage. But are such worries justified, and will businesses need to do more to protect their customers?
The root of the concern
Technology continues to advance at an astonishing rate. Autonomous cars are now a very real prospect. A fully integrated, responsive and independently ‘thinking’ home is no longer a sci-fi fantasy. Staying healthy is easier than it’s ever been. All of this has been made possible by what’s known to some as the ‘Internet of Things’ or to others ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Tiny sensors, placed in almost every conceivable place from headphones to fridges, track in real-time a multitude of variables. Feeding data into a vast pool for it to be scrutinised and then repackaged as useful advice, products are then able to respond in a way that benefits the consumer. Cars will break by themselves to avoid collisions, headphones will change the song according to the mood of the listener and our fridges will order goods that are running low. 15 billion of these connected devices currently exist; the tech giant Cisco expects this figure to rise to 50 billion by the end of the decade.
But sophisticated, Smart Service technology is redundant without consumer demand for the products. To take a previous example, only 17% of the UK consumers we surveyed actually wanted their fridge to think for itself. But in other industries, the opportunity for Smart Service growth is enormous. The demand for health monitoring products is particularly strong, with up to 80% of consumers in favour of wearing steps taken and calories burned tracking smartwatches. At home, approximately 70% of the people we sampled would like to be notified of a house-fire or break in, and have their utility usage monitored in real-time. Even in the finance sector, where the industry is typically wary of change, nearly 60% of the consumers we surveyed would like to be notified by their smartphone of a depletion of account funds below a specified minimum balance, with roughly the same figure wanting to be digitally informed about changes to interest rates. Clearly, consumers are keen. But they’re even keener on security.
The Darker Side
For Smart Service technology to function effectively, data collection and analytics is obviously essential. It’s almost inevitable therefore that companies will learn some of the habits of consumers, whether they be spending, exercising, eating, or travelling. In the right hands of course, this works overwhelmingly in the consumer’s interest. Nevertheless, 90% of Brits we surveyed were worried that hackers might infiltrate organisations’ databases, while almost the same figure were concerned companies might lose their specific data or simply invade their privacy. In the wrong hands, control over Smart Service technology, and possession of confidential information can be a frighteningly powerful weapon. Cars could be remotely hijacked, computerised insulin pumps overridden, bank details sold off. At another level, locations could be tracked with smartwatches, health details used to affect insurance policies, or house break-in notifications blocked by tech-savvy burglars. In the wake of serious data breaches, consumers’ trust in institutions holding their details has been badly shaken. For faith to be restored, companies must do more to convince customers that their service is safe. Otherwise, the figure of 90% won’t ever fall.
With security systems integrated into the product, rather than merely tacked on as an afterthought, consumers may be happy to see Smart Service technology exploited to its full capacity. Until then, unleashing the innovation potential of cutting-edge technology could be blocked by fear.