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Coming soon to a fridge near you -- targeted ads

Google letter to SEC describes company's intent to deliver targeted ads to smart fridges, thermostats other devices.

May 23, 2014 06:15 AM ET

Computerworld - Targeted advertisements are headed to smart refrigerators, smart thermostats and other Internet-connected devices, potentially raising new privacy concerns for people who use those products.

A financial report filed by Google in December and picked up Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal describes the Internet company's intent to deliver ads on almost any IP-enabled device that it has access to in the future.

"We expect the definition of mobile to continue to evolve as more and more 'smart' devices gain traction in the market," Google said in a letter addressed to the accounting branch chief at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That statement was part of an explanation of why Google doesn't disclose its mobile revenues separately.

"For example, a few years from now, we and other companies could be serving ads and other content on refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses, and watches, to name just a few possibilities," the company said.

In the letter, Google said it expects users of its services to view ads on an "increasingly wide diversity of devices" in the future. "Thus," the letter went on to say, "our advertising systems are becoming increasingly device-agnostic."

Rather than developing separate ad campaigns for desktops, mobile and other device categories, the company said it plans to develop device-agnostic campaigns capable of dynamically delivering targeted ads "to the right user at the right time on whatever device that makes the most sense."

Many people may not be concerned about the prospect of a future in which a smart fridge could serve up an ad for, say, toaster strudels, or a thermostat could deliver a pitch for a brand of furnaces. But privacy advocates see things differently.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and other groups have raised concerns about the potential for privacy intrusions in a world where many things that people use on a daily basis are connected to the Internet.

The Federal Trade Commission has acknowledged the need for a closer inspection of the potential security and privacy implications of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT).

"Consumers already are able to use their mobile phones to open their car doors, turn off their home lights, adjust their thermostats, and have their vital signs, such as blood pressure, EKG, and blood sugar levels, remotely monitored by their physicians," the FTC noted last November while convening a workshop on IoT privacy and security issues.

"In the not-too-distant future, consumers approaching a grocery store might receive messages from their refrigerator reminding them that they are running out of milk," the FTC said.

The big concern with plans by Google and others to deliver targeted ads into the home is the potential for misuse of customer data, said Marc Rotenberg, president of EPIC.



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