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Five ways to make smart products more trusted

To mark World Consumer Rights Day 2019, Consumers International interim Director General, Justin Macmullan, outlines why we are calling for Trusted Smart Products and what Consumers International members are doing around the world.

Surveys suggest there are currently 23.1 billion connected devices installed globally, a figure expected to triple by 2025. This is a growing global phenomenon which will fundamentally change the nature of many consumer products and services and is already increasing convenience and choice for many consumers. However, more needs to be done to ensure all consumers have affordable access to the internet and there are connected products relevant to their needs so they can also enjoy these benefits. And importantly, we also need to address risks and concerns that come with allowing these products into our lives; including weak security, poor data protection, and a lack of accessible information.

1. Better security and safety

Our members’ testing of smart products has revealed that many are so insecure that someone with minimal hacking skills can access cameras and microphones, steal personal information, or even communicate through the device. These products can also function as a gateway to other smart devices in the home.

Our member in the USA, Consumer Reports, tested fertility app Glow, and found worryingly insecurities, meaning someone with no hacking skills could access a woman’s personal data. And with rudimentary software tools could collect email addresses, change passwords, and access personal information including details of women’s sex lives and health concerns.

Until all smart products are built with the highest level of security, consumers can do things to protect themselves. To help with this, Consumers International and the Internet Society created a 90-second video, and accompanying ‘Connect Smart’ tips in collaboration with the Internet Society to help consumers stay safe whilst using smart products.

2. Privacy respecting data protection

Smart products run on data. But how much choice do we have over what we share and what is done with that data? A significant data privacy risk arises from devices being able (and indeed designed) to communicate with each other and to transfer data autonomously to third parties.

Our member, the Norwegian Consumer Council’s Toyfail report found popular connected toys were recording everything the child says around the doll and transferring it to a company which can sell this information to third parties.


3. Real world access, inclusion and affordability

It stands to reason that smart products and services are locked off to those without affordable and reliable internet. Only 50% of the world is currently online and for many of those with access, prohibitive costs prevent regular use. To buy 1GB of data in Africa, for example, costs on average 18% of a person’s monthly income. In South Africa, the high price of data has led to protests and the social media campaign #DataMustFall.

Products also need to be designed so that they are relevant and accessible to consumers, including women, consumers on low incomes or consumers with disabilities. Including a more diverse range of people in the development of products can help to ensure that different perspectives and needs are taken into account.

4. More accessible information

Consumers may understand device functionality but the way in which their data is collected and used and how it relates to a company’s business model is often unclear. A study by 25 international privacy regulators showed 59% of devices failed to adequately explain to customers how their personal information was collected, used and disclosed.

Consumers International’s Portuguese member, Deco Proteste, carried out mystery shopping for Smart TVs. They found that no available pre-purchase information for consumers on how the devices collected and used the consumers’ data. However, agreeing to the provider’s data collection policy was essential in order to use the TV.


5. More flexibility to move providers

Ensuring that the different smart products consumers own are able to communicate with each other is important for consumers to get the most out of their devices. If you were to buy a home assistant and find it could not connect to other devices in your home this would severely limit its functionality. There is also the problem of being locked into one provider, as to transfer data and information between providers is impossible. To have truly open connected products consumers need to be able to easily compare and switch providers.

Across the globe, our members will be using the day to call for action on issues important to the consumers in their countries. You can view them on our World Consumer Rights Day live blog and interactive map. 

Continuing our IoT work at Summit 2019

We’ll be continuing the conversation started on World Consumer Rights Day at the Consumers International Summit 2019 where we will ask how we can put consumers at the heart of the development of digital development.

Smart products will be just one of the topics that we will be addressing as we bring together senior leaders for the consumer movement, business and government to engage with the new and emerging consumer issues in the digital economy and society.

The summit will be held in Portugal and will run from the 30 April 2019 for two days, preceded by side events the day before (29 April 2019) and followed by a member exclusive day (2 May 2019).

Visit the Consumers International website to find out more about the programme, speakers and how to register.