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Will the Internet of Things Be Another Surveillance Nightmare?

28/09/2014

mobileThe Internet of Things—the coming revolution in household appliance integration with the Internet—could well be a nightmare of privacy violation and data harvesting.The past decade has seen a revolution in microprocessing, Internet connectivity and widespread adoption of new technologies.

Human beings are connected to vast sources of data and discourse through an increasing number of outlets.

Phones and tablets, the first frontier of smart, social technology beyond traditional computers, have highlighted questions of privacy in media, discussion and politics. As the microprocessor revolution rages on, more and more household objects will begin to collect data, communicate with the Internet, and force us to evaluate our positions on the fine line between privacy and utility.

Purdue University computer science professor Eugene Spafford is researching the risks and benefits of the so-called Internet of Things. He warns that an increasing number of household objects—everything from refrigerators and toilets to electrical grids and showers—will soon collect a great deal of data, often without our knowledge.

Similar tensions have been raised over Google and Facebook’s massive data collection programs and algorithms that tailor—or force—the individual’s experience. Even the federal government, through the PRISM program, is collecting massive amounts of data on the communication habits of Americans through phone and internet services.

Spafford points out, “We put ourselves in a position where we may be manipulated without our consent, and possibly without our knowledge, because connections may be drawn on this data that we don’t understand or recognize even about ourselves.”

On the other hand, mass analysis of data about our daily behaviors could be extremely helpful. If one could be given feedback from data points about energy usage, health, movement, food, and finances, more utilitarian decisions could be made.

Professor Spafford points out his main concern: the data may be available to more than just the individual consumer. The companies that sell the smart products may mine considerable data on consumer behavior without the consent or knowledge of the user, just as Facebook and Google do.

“For example the company that makes the Nest thermostat was purchased by Google. Now Google will know when I’m home, can determine how many people are in the house, and that information will be provided to other companies and government agencies. Is that a trade I’m willing to make? To what extent can I control that?” says Spafford.

Ethnical questions with emerging technologies are nothing new. As connectivity increases, the capacity for discourse also increases. Though the debate on privacy and utility is complex, it will be up to the companies to design smart products that consumers feel comfortable with, up to the consumers to decide whether to adopt them or not.

On the other hand, some fear that the rate of technology is increasing beyond our capacity to understand its full implications. If there is no transparency and no legal protection of consumer’s privacy, corporations could exploit consumer ignorance and gather data without regard.

Spafford believes that full transparency is the only way to ethically integrate these new technologies into society. If the consumer is given full knowledge of the data that will be collected and who will have access to it, then he or she could make an educated choice on the adoption of the technology.

Regardless of the level that individual privacy is compromised, mass adoption of the Internet of Things is likely. There is always a threshold where utility outweighs the sacrifice of privacy. In a 2011 survey of 1000 smart phone users, 98% reported privacy and transparency as a serious concern. It is a small minority, however, who abstains from smartphone use altogether because of privacy concerns. In the next ten years, we will see whether society continues to lean towards utility and data over a sense of privacy.

References:

“Sensors everywhere could mean privacy nowhere, expert says,” via Purdue University.


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