Smart packaging brings challenges to privacy in the home

Smart packaging brings convenience and safety - but opens questions about data use

In our science fiction-fuelled vision of the future we all enjoy video wristwatches, self-driving cars, and smart milk cartons that order another litre of semi-skimmed when their contents go out of date.

Well, the video wristwatch is here and the self-driving car will soon be literally around the corner.  But our plastic milk bottles remain as dumb as ever. The implementation of smart packaging is still somewhat more marginal, for now at least.

However as the connected home and its web-powered smart devices come online, we must look to the refrigerator and the kitchen cupboards to see where the internet of things will soon be connected. Already, thanks to Amazon’s ‘Dash’ devices, it’s easy to stick a button on the dishwasher that with one click will see a big box of dishwasher tablets arrive the next day.  The next phase of development removes the need for human interaction altogether: Welcome to the age of auto-replenish.

The ‘how we do it?’  part is not so tough. Sensors for packaged consumer goods are small and getting cheaper. What is perhaps less certain is how human beings will now accept - and engineer - this new automation into our lives.

The home used to be a place of refuge where we could seek sanctuary from the outside world. Now it’s going to be an always-on service centre where our personal consumption preferences are reduced to data, to be consumed as raw material by the AI engines of Silicon Valley-based tech giants.

There are positives here as Colin Elkins, global industry director for process manufacturing at enterprise applications company IFS, points out. Smart packaging can aid authentication, to ensure food hasn’t been tampered with. He also points to the potential to use packaging as interactive real estate for marketing which could be tailored,  for instance,  to the consumer’s location or time of day.

London-based Zappar has collaborated with a number of packaging companies to create augmented reality products - a taste of what could happen as packaging becomes smarter. A consumer can view a product through a smartphone camera and see the real world with additional information ‘augmented’ on top, for instance the product could spring to life or be the central part of a game.

“We’re moving towards a world where everything is smart, internet-connected, trackable and linked to everything else,” says Zappar chief executive and co-founder Caspar Thykier. “In the packaging industry, smart tech will make products more engaging for customers and more valuable for manufacturing firms. It also gives packaging firms a new revenue stream, letting them provide extra value to their partners with additional insight into consumer behaviour.”

We must remember, however, that every device has a digital identity and every time we interact with it, we create a piece of machine data, a digital fingerprint. Unless we manage it, this electronic trail may give an uncomfortable amount of information about our activities and preferences to firms who seek to apply “user behaviour analytics” to our private home life.

The presence of a chip may make a package harder to recycle

“The problem is that we are not having conversations about consumer data collection and identity management,” says Richard Slater, principal consultant at cloud software application development company Amido.

There are still some practical problems to be overcome before smart packaging becomes more widespread. Truly smart packaging requires products to be fitted with a chip that can be read remotely, similar to the one used in contactless bank cards, and the home to have devices that can read them. But even the latest £4,000 smart fridges from tech giant Samsung don’t have readers.

Though the tech industry has aims get the cost of a chip down under a single penny, a penny per item is a lot for a food multinational that ships billions of items a year. Would dumb products be cheaper? Or would all consumer be forced to pay extra for smart ones? Do supermarkets need to extend shelf space for two types of packaging? The cost of intelligence appears to spiral upwards way before it comes down. Plus the presence of a chip may make a package hard to recycle.

Turn off the margarine

At this early stage there are positives and negatives in the auto-replenish revolution. If we do adopt smart packaging tomorrow it will be very important for us - the users - to be able to control how active these devices are inside our newly-smart homes. So far nobody has ever asked anyone to go and ‘turn off the margarine’, but that day is coming soon.