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DEMO Debuts Plumb Privacy Frontiers


SANTA CLARA–The state of consumer privacy in the digital world is sufficiently scrambled that the security tools in one app introduced at the DEMO Fall conference here came designed to short-circuit the kind of interactive marketing research undertaken by another.

In one corner of this little episode of Spy vs. SpySnoopWall‘s upcoming Android app offers granular control over entire subsystems of a mobile device–for instance, its Bluetooth or NFC wireless–as well as the reach of individual apps to things like the contacts list or the camera. Other future releases from this Las Vegas firm promise a similar array of kill switches for iOS, Windows and Windows Phone.

In another corner, Eyeris Technologies aims to mass-produce focus-group testing with EmoVu. The Mountain View, Calif., firm will invite Web users to opt into granting its site access to their webcams so it can study their facial expressions (in addition to identifying their gender and their approximate age)  as they watch video clips. Is this ad funny enough? Is this horror-movie trailer scary enough? An advertiser will be able to tell.

More often, products launched in four-minute presentations at IDG Enterprise’s annual pitch conference offered a trade of a useful service or feature for information about you. A reasonable trade or a creepy one? That may depend on the user.

(Disclosure: IDG is an occasional freelance client.)

For example, the photo-sharing app Shoto cross-references your location and your contacts to see if other users are nearby, then can automatically create a group album. Should that be more exposure than you meant, a simple slider control makes a picture visible only to you and wipes it from other copies of Shoto.

NewAer’s Share, meanwhile, offered a reminder that location-based services don’t even need your GPS coordinates: Instead, its apps determine proximity by sifting through ambient WiFi and Bluetooth signals, then allow quick file transfers routed through its cloud storage.

In the area of health, Pictrition brings crowd-sourced advice to food porn: You take a picture of what you’re about to eat, then other users vote on its nutritional value. The concept isn’t new–nine years ago, I reviewed a paid service, MyFoodPhone, that had a dietitian offer advice based on fuzzy, poorly-lit cameraphone shots–but having a crowd of strangers question your culinary judgment is something I would have found strange in 2006.

Another DEMO debut, Genetrainer’s BedScales, will let software suss out your sleep cycles. Put its sensors, each packing six strain gauges, under each leg of your bed, and it will upload its measurements of your weight and sleep for analysis on the company’s servers. The significant-other and spouse approval factors of such a thing remain to be seen.

A third health-themed DEMO startup, Hello Doctor, provided an unintentional illustration of the importance of making it easy for your users to leave. This iPad app, one of five “DEMO God” winners at the conference, promises free medical-records management and analysis, with the inevitable paper reports imported by taking pictures with the tablet’s camera; it says it’ll make its money through big-picture analysis of the flood of anonymized user data. But its export option today involves e-mailing these digitized records as JPEG files–one at a time.

A couple of DEMO exhibitors offered the promise of individual access to the kind of tools usually confined to large services and social networks. The Google Glass app People+ promises automatic facial recognition of individuals you meet, just like what Facebook can do. (Google frowns on this use, but this Bay Area startup has company in startups like Lambda Labs and ReKognition.) Update: Wrong. Although the demo had me and others thinking it involved facial recognition, that’s not how the app runs, as People+ explained in a comment below.

And PointDrive, a document-sharing service that aims to route around the standard mail-attachment user experience, lets senders see who’s viewed the files they shared in much the same way that commercial mailing-list services track open rates.

A company can also make a case for itself by eschewing the usual information-for-service tradeoff. Evernote CEO Phil Libin gave a great talk Wednesday night noting how his company’s century-long focus led it to focus on giving some users reasons to pay for premium service instead of trying to monetize every user’s data upfront.

“We explicitly reject all indirect revenue streams,” he said, making a statement that might get one thrown out of some circles in Silicon Valley. “We are not a big-data company.”


Trust in the integrity and security of the Internet and associated products and services is essential to its success as a platform for digital communication and commerce. For this reason we’re committed to upholding and advocating for policymaking that empowers consumers to make informed choices in the marketplace while not impeding new business models.