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Why building consumer trust in technology is tricky business

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Jae C. Hong / AP

Show attendees charge their phones at the charging station at CES International Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, in Las Vegas.

That iPhone in your pocket or purse brings you the outside world in a convenient and powerful tiny package.

It also allows the rest of the world right inside yours at the same time.

Tech industry leaders gathered last week at CES to discuss how to better assure an increasingly nervous public that data collected from all manner of devices will not be used for the wrong purpose or end up in the wrong hands.

“Once they violate that trust with people, with individuals, they’re screwed,” said Jonathan Kim, president of Aicon, a company attempting to narrow the gap between future societal needs and early childhood education. “Regulations will not control the situation.”

Recent information from the Pew Research Center shows that as of last year, 68 percent of adults in the United States own a smartphone — a staggering jump from 35 percent ownership in 2011. That includes 86 percent of young people ages 18-29 and 83 percent of people ages 30-49.

The 2016 MEF Global Consumer Trust Report surveyed 5,000 mobile users worldwide and concluded that “a lack of trust remains the single biggest barrier to growth.” Among mobile users, 36 percent of people said the main reason they don’t download or use more mobile apps or services is because they don’t want to give up personal information. In fact, 52 percent of people reported deleting at least one app that caused them concern about the privacy of their information.

In the United States, 53 percent of mobile users said they do not want to share personal information but realize that in order to use certain apps, they have no choice. That group grew by a quarter from last year.

Panelists compiled a set of potential best practices that includes never collecting more information than you need and having consent to use it, being specific about what you are collecting and who’s doing it, and caring for your data as you would a financial asset.

Arthur Goldstuck, editor-in-chief of Gadget online magazine, presented a few more involved situations that could create a lack of trust among consumers:

• The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology recently created a chip that can be used to detect an impending heart attack from inside the body. Once implanted, the chip can recognize a particular heart-attack enzyme, and then send a signal to the skin. The skin sends signal to your phone, which contacts a doctor. Could such a chip be hacked or used for a malicious purpose?

• The rise of 3-D printing technology has advanced so far that food can be created from such a machine. Are you eating a real food product from nature or something assembled within a futuristic device?

• Mastercard touts its Masterpass digital wallet, which can put credit card technology directly into your vehicle, allowing you to pay for gas and food at the touch of a screen in your vehicle. How safe is your financial information in this environment?

“When it comes to these sort of ethical questions, logic flies out the window,” Goldstuck said. “This has to be addressed.”

Nina Bhatia, managing director of Hive, a smart-home technology outfit, said that beyond obvious steps such as asking consumers to opt in to sharing their data and providing comprehensible terms and conditions, simply having a person they can reach to discuss potential related issues makes a difference in her company.

“I think consumers garner trust from things that are physical and human,” Bhatia said.

Bhatia also suggested her fellow industry leaders reach into their consumer base for guidance.

“Often what’s missing is a real consumer’s perspective,” Bhatia said.

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