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Consumers and the Internet of Things: one connection too many?

Liz Coll, Head of Digital Advocacy at Consumers International, takes a look at recent trends in the global uptake of connected devices and considers what these trends can tell us about consumer attitudes towards the Internet of Things.  

Last year our report on ‘Connection and Protection in the digital age’ explored the impact of the rapidly expanding trend of the Internet of Things (IoT) – with more and more everyday objects connecting to the internet. As with any ‘next big thing’ topic, the figures looked astounding with some commentators predicting 50 billion IoT devices to be connected by 2020.

New reports in 2017 have not been quite so bold with their predictions. According to analyst firm Gartner, the total number of IoT devices deployed by 2020 is more likely to be just over 20 billion. As with any forecast about the future of the digital economy, there are no certainties – but this drop feels significant. Could it be that consumer attitudes and concerns about connected devices are, at least partly, behind these more reserved predictions in 2017?

Our 2016 report suggested that security concerns and the invasive nature of connected technology would potentially hold back consumer engagement in this next deeper, more personal phase of digital technology. The focus of our work with G20 governments to help ‘Build a Digital World Consumers can Trust’ makes the case that unless consumers can trust digital technology, they won’t readily accept it into their everyday lives.  Getting trust right is therefore a key part of creating a vibrant demand side for the market.

So does it look like this is the case for the consumer market for IoT devices? A report released by Deloitte (eng) in 2016 points to an uneven uptake of consumer IoT devices in more developed economies. Connected entertainment devices such as games consoles and smart TVs have maintained a steady growth but sales of Fitbit devices failed to meet expectations.

Some research indicates that this limited take off is because of a failure to meet people’s needs, both in terms of pricing and also the difficulty of use and maintenance. As shown in the MEF Global Consumer Survey from April 2016, the levels of privacy and security were also problematic for consumers, with 62% and 52% of those surveyed reporting these as the biggest concerns, respectively.

Another example of the noticeable consumer resistance to connected devices has been the move by some Fitbit users to turn off the smart elements of their devices off only months after purchasing the products. With novelty seemingly wearing off so quickly, does this mean that penetration of IoT devices won’t happen as all those excited articles predicted?

In reality, it is hard to prove or predict that people won’t buy internet of things products because of a lack of trust. As privacy and technology expert Gilad Rosner somewhat ominously predicted that business momentum will mean that “The Internet of Things will happily march along with lousy privacy and security, and we will be the poorer for it”. 

Connected technology seems to be one of those things that creeps into products – an alarm clock on a smart phone that suddenly wants to become a ‘sleep tool’ to help you enjoy a restful night. An insurance provider that offers a subsidised fitness trackers, for as long as you keep active.

But with high profile internet of things problems such as the #Toyfail and the development of devices such as fertility trackers collecting and analysing sensitive information about one of the most private aspects of people’s lives, perhaps people will start to demand technology that is not just helpful but safe, ethical and human-centered.

How can consumer organisations play a leading role by working with businesses to ensure that connected devices can be safer, less invasive and prioritise consumer interests? Our member Consumer Reports’ new digital standard initiative is an excellent example of how the global consumer movement can evaluate and test the safety of digital products and services, empowering consumers to make informed choices about whether they want to invest in IoT devices. This week, Maria Rerecich of Consumer Reports will speak at an SXSW event that considers how a consumer organisation can include privacy, security, and data practices in its testing protocols.

As consumer organisations continue to monitor ongoing developments in the connected world, it’s vital that the global consumer movement advocates for businesses to build security and privacy in at the design stage. It’s not just the right thing to do but could be a smart business move as consumers look for products they’re sure they can trust  – for your child’s next birthday would you buy a smart toy classed as espionage equipment’?

We are co-hosting the G20 Consumer Summit in Berlin on WCRD this week which will provide an excellent opportunity to engage in a dialogue with governments, business leaders and key stakeholders about the most pressing concerns that consumers face and how to work together to create a better digital world.