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This year’s tech trends have both nice and naughty sides

December 15, 2014 at 6:15 PM EST
Are high-tech personal gadgets on your holiday shopping list? Hari Sreenivasan talks to Amy Webb of Webbmedia Group about the rise of wearable devices, the inherent concerns over data collection and security and the industry that’s popped up to help safeguard consumer privacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s the time of the year when many people buy the latest gadgets for holiday gifts. But for all the convenience and the cool features, plenty of red flags and worries have been raised about what’s happening with all the data they collect.

We have a look ahead at where this is heading in the marketplace.

Hari Sreenivasan is in our New York studios with the conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As 2014 comes to a close, we’re going to take a moment to focus on some emerging trends in the tech world that you can expect to hear more about in the next year. They range from an expanding universe of wearable clothes and accessories that include electronics and technologies, to wireless networks at home that can monitor your personal health, to possibly smarter drones.

We didn’t say you would necessarily like all of them. But we did want to take a look ahead.

And for that we get the views tonight for Amy Webb, an entrepreneur, writer and digital strategist whose annual report of emerging trends is widely watched in this sector.

So I mentioned wearables. Six months ago, a year ago, when I bought this watch that monitors my heart rate and my sweat and how many steps I take, I was pretty nerdy and I was kind of a small group of people that quantified their selves.

But now, in the Christmas holiday season, you see the flyers, the Fitbit, and Force and Flex, and all the other ones that are out there, you see it at a lot more gyms. Are wearables beyond the nerd world into the mainstream yet?

AMY WEBB, Webbmedia Group: Sure.

Well, one of the things that happened in 2014 is that wearables jumped from being watches and Fitbits and in some cases glasses that you could wear to devices that service all different types of purposes.

And, in fact, we’re tracking about 290 different wearables right now. One of the neat things that we’re seeing going to the next year are wearables specifically designed for children. So these are watches and different devices that parents can give to their children and those devices do different things.

So, in some circumstances, they track, using geolocation, where children are. And that is obviously for safety purposes. There are some other devices that parents can outfit their children with to help them remember to do their homework. But the interesting thing with wearable devices is that they are still connected to something else. So it’s not possible to really wear one of these wearable devices without it connecting to your mobile phone.

And because it connects to your mobile phone, that means you are a part of a bigger network, and the data is living somewhere else. So when you wear a wearable device, you are part of this network. And as a result, there are some concerns about privacy and security and trust.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What happens to that information and who controls it? I’m imagining that there are companies and technologies coming to fill that niche as well to try to protect that information for you.

AMY WEBB: Sure.

Well, one of the things that happened late this year, 2014, is that a court of law used Fitbit data in a court case. And it was discovered that Fitbit has been selling its data to third parties without the knowledge of the people wearing the device. Now, they weren’t breaking any explicit terms of service. One of the things is that when we purchase these wearable devices and all of this exciting new technology, very few people think about what happens on the other end of that tech.

And, you know, in the case of Fitbit, it turns out that there was another company that was looking at our data, looking at where we were and how we were using the device. And Fitbit is certainly not the only player in this space doing that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So I have seen now there are cell phones with strong encryption. Is there going to be e-mail with stronger encryption and even social networks that help protect what it is that I share and who I share it with?

AMY WEBB: So there is a device coming out called the Blackphone which launched this past summer, but it launched in very small release, and it will be much more available going into next year.

The Blackphone is interesting because it encrypts everything. And if you are calling another person with a Blackphone, essentially, that entire conversation is untraceable. So people who are looking in — and that could change from law enforcement to run-of-the-mill hackers — they can tell that a phone call was made, but they can’t really easily pinpoint where the call was made or to whom.

And it doesn’t just go for phone calls. It also goes for mail, which is also encrypted. Now, those in cyber-security enforcement will tell you that the best way to not be discovered is to not use anything that plugs into a wall. But these phones are certainly a harbinger of what’s to come.

In addition to the phones, we’re seeing a big trend in ephemeral content. So, this is content that you can post either as yourself anonymously. And that content disappears. So there are some networks that gained prominence this year, Whisper, Secret, these are apps that you can use on your mobile phone, post secrets or gossip about other people, and then that content is either not traced back to you or in some cases it might go away.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the more searched-for terms this holiday season is drones. And it’s not just 10-year-old boys or 14-year-old boys that are interested.

We’re also seeing the use of drones happening more and more in the commercial space, slowly, as the permits come out. Tell us about intelligent drone. What is an intelligent drone vs. one we go and buy at the mall?

AMY WEBB: So, you know, drones themselves are — you know, they’re mechanical devices. They’re little things that you can fly. There are actually drones that are non-flying machines. They are drones that look like bugs, drones that look like little vehicles that you can sort of control on the ground.

And in the past, it’s always required 100 percent human intervention. So a human has to control all of the movements. The software, the processes that power decision-making and allow machines and computers to sort of think for themselves — and we call that artificial intelligence and machine learning — in that space, there have been some pretty significant advancements over the past 12 to 18 months.

And when you marry that technology with our mechanical technologies — so, that would be the drones — what we get are autonomous vehicles that are not only able to fly or to sort of move around on the ground, but can start making inferences and decisions. And if you couple that with camera technology, oftentimes, drones are outfitted with cameras.

And one of the really interesting things that has happened over the past few years is that the algorithms that power image recognition have gotten incredibly strong and incredibly capable, so that they don’t just recognize a face. But if that person gains weight or loses weight, changes their hair color, puts in colored contacts, the camera is still able to lock on to that person’s face and recognize them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes. That’s a lot to think about.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Amy Webb, thanks so much for joining us.

AMY WEBB: Thanks, Hari.

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