Every year, the world over, 15th March is celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. This is an international consumers’ movement which champions the rights of the consumer and works toward deepening global solidarity among consumers by way of events, awareness campaigns, and peaceful protest. This movement is being led by Consumers International (CI), a federation of consumer organisations from across the globe, which provides a theme for coordinated action each year. This year, the theme was Trusted Smart Products.

As explained by CI, “Smart technology is a growing global phenomenon which will fundamentally change the nature of consumer products and services”. Most modern gadgets are manufactured with a default internet set-up. This includes an array of devices such as smart watches, smart TVs, smart toys, smartphones, and wearable fitness trackers. While there is a clear positive element to this development (responsive devices, easy and faster access to services, often dramatically offering more convenience), there are some poorly understood grey areas which justify significant concern. The lack of security, the way in which information is stored, how it is shared, as well as a lack of clarity over accountability, all warrant a timely intervention into smart technology. As a member of CI and to discuss the opportunities and challenges about smart products, CAG, in collaboration with Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai organised an event on the 14th of March, 2019.

A student representative from Ethiraj College welcomed the gathering and S. Saroja from CAG gave a brief introduction about the program. Following this, Savitha Thirunavukkarasu from CAG gave a detailed presentation on “Digital Applications”. Digital applications are software applications that can be used by computers, mobile phones or tablets to perform specific tasks such as playing, singing, chatting, online banking, and video calling. This was followed by a detailed explanation about digital security and data privacy. When a consumer enters basic user information (phone number, email, etc.) on applications or web portals or saves personal information in devices, the organisation controlling the application or the website may have access to this personal information. The consumer has no control over what happens to such data once it enters this domain. A quick scan of the terms of services and privacy policies of digital applications will give an idea of how vulnerable we are to misuse of our data.

As part of her presentation, Savitha conducted a quiz for students on various applications that are popular on smartphones. She explained how consumers could ensure their safety while using any of these products by managing application permissions, not allowing unwanted notifications, not saving credit/debit card or password details, not sharing personal details on pop-ups etc. There were also video snippets that described the real risk of being hacked. One example showed a virus on banking software which worked through smart gadgets, retrieving customers’ personal details.

Later, students performed a skit on "Smartphones and their impact on life" and debated on the topic "Smart Products - A boon or a bane". Sumana Narayanan from CAG judged the event. The team that made the arguments in favour of smart products spoke about how smart devices were extremely convenient, saved time, and helped reduce resource wastage. The team that spoke against smart products explained how smart devices could become addictive, make unquestioning followers of users, and about its issues with privacy.

In conclusion, Sumana said that there are no cut and dried answers on whether smart devices were a boon or a bane. A consumer’s needs and lifestyle should determine where s/he draws the line. What is important is for consumers to be aware that our information can be used or misused.