The Creepiness of Convenience

As our lives become more connected, companies are focusing on security and data protection
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Technology has inarguably made life easier and more convenient. Just ask, and Alexa will dim the lights and recall your current favorite playlist. Roomba will vacuum the house while you’re at the office, and your refrigerator can suggest meals based on its contents.

The flip side, of course, is that all of that data lives somewhere, and it’s a hot commodity. Roomba’s parent company, iRobot, made headlines when the CEO hinted it might sell maps of users’ homes, later clarifying that the maps would be shared only with user permission. Amazon and Google announced in February that they’re asking smart gadget makers like Logitech and Hunter Appliance to send continuous streams of information, raising questions about what will happen to all of that data, according to Bloomberg.

Marine companies working to integrate new technology onto boats are trying to learn from these other industries’ public, and sometimes epic, fails. “Our technology capabilities are still maturing — that’s our advantage as an industry,” says Lou Sandoval, national business director for Nautic-On, a Brunswick start-up that has launched remote diagnostics and monitoring systems for boats. “We learned from auto, the home sector, Google and Facebook — and no CEO wants to be the guy in front of Congress defending why what happened, happened.”

Anytime there’s a data transfer, even with what looks like a fun quiz on social media, consumers have to ask themselves what data they are handing over and how it’s being used, Sandoval says. Nautic-On has had a third-party assessment by a privacy veteran on all its security properties to be sure it has the lowest threat risk possible.

“The user owns their data, and they choose whether to share it, and it’s shared for a limited period of time,” Sandoval says. “Those are some of the safeguards we’ve put into place, and it’s not a wink wink, nudge nudge kind of thing. It’s all secluded and appropriately relegated. It’s kind of like when you have accounts where you can’t commingle funds.”

Data sharing and protection are critical issues for the industry as boats become more technical.

Data sharing and protection are critical issues for the industry as boats become more technical.

Garmin is also taking steps in similar directions. As a global company with stakes in aviation, fitness and outdoors, Garmin is well-versed on the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, says sales and marketing director Dave Dunn. “With Garmin watches, millions of customers upload their health data daily to the cloud, and due to the privacy laws, you can’t tie it back to one person,” Dunn says. “Garmin doesn’t sell anybody’s data. It’s more important for us to protect it.”

Thieves commonly target electronics — and they want all kinds of data that users may not anticipate a need to protect. “Some of these charter fishermen have hundreds of thousands of waypoints that could be valuable,” Dunn says. “They can’t get personal data from that, but they’re still stealing data. We’re looking at ways to protect that also. It’s going to become more of a problem.”

Possible solutions come back to the balancing act between convenience and security. “We’re looking at ways to actively lock the units, but it’s not an easy puzzle to solve,” says Dunn. “We considered using passwords, but what about the guy who gets one Saturday off and can’t remember the passcode? That means he can’t go fish on his only day off.”

For now, Garmin partners with security systems company GOST, recommending that customers invest in systems that trigger strobe lights and sirens when a boat is boarded.

“There’s the common misconception that Garmin loves that this stuff gets stolen because it means more sales,” Dunn says. “We don’t want people to get frustrated with boating and stop altogether, so it’s not good for anybody. Anything we can come up with, they’ve come up with ways to circumvent it. But we’re working on it.” 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.

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