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Privacy In All Things Includes the “Internet of Things”


The Internet of Things is coming… are you ready?

Virtual and real, offline and online, public and private. Will future generations look back at these distinctions as obsolete? Just as the Internet has revolutionized the way we communicate with the world in powerful and often unintended ways, the Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming the way the objects of our world communicate with us and each other.

Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist of the Progressive Policy Institute describes the Internet of Things as the “extension of the Internet to the physical world.” According to Deepak Kumar, IoT refers to “a collective of Internet-connected consumer devices, manufacturing systems, business tools, customer service appliances, medical equipment, agricultural sensors and other things.”

Gartner forecasts that by 2020 IoT will have grown to over 26 billion devices. Public opinion findings from a recent Pew Research Study revealed 83% of respondents felt IoT will have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public.

Microsoft foresaw the promise of a connected home and a Jetson-like experience where our every need is anticipated. Just take a look at this video from 1999. While the fashions may be somewhat dated, the depiction of the technology was visionary. Some of us may find this way of life modern, innovative and completely comfortable. Others may find the thought of “things” controlling our lives and our every move tracked a bit disheartening, soulless and creepy.

Consumer Concerns about IoT May Limit Adoption

On the creepy end of the spectrum, there are significant privacy issues to resolve, so much so that recent TRUSTe research suggests privacy concerns could significantly limit the growth of IoT. The research found that 6 out of 10 (59%) of internet users know that smart devices such as smart TVs, fitness devices and in-car navigation systems could collect data about their personal activities.

Not surprisingly, users want more information and control:

• 85% agreed that they would want to understand more about data being collected before using smart devices

• 88% agreed that they would want to control the data being collected through smart devices before purchasing or using a device

• 83% were concerned about the idea of personal information being collected by smart devices

• 87% are concerned about the type of personal information collected through smart devices

Comfort levels varied significantly depending on who might be able to access the data. 63% were comfortable with their spouse or significant other being able to access the data from smart devices but only 14% were happy for data to be shared with advertising companies or the government.

These privacy concerns could be a potential barrier to the growth of the IoT market as only 22% of respondents agreed that the benefits of smart devices outweighed any privacy concerns.

Though the IoT concept is just starting to take off, many of the issues presented are familiar. What are the consumer privacy and security issues posed by the growing connectivity of devices? How can consumers and society benefit from IoT technology?

Regulating the Wild West of IoT

The Internet of Things remains largely unregulated, but it’s certainly on regulators’ radars.

As FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez says, “I want to ensure that consumers can enjoy the benefits of this new world (of IoT) without sacrificing their privacy.”

The data security concerns are real. Many are concerned about potential car and home takeovers. Here on the frontier of IoT there have already been a few unsettling security breaches. Parents in Ohio woke up to the sound of a stranger saying, “Wake up, baby!” though their baby monitor, and the FTC brought its first IoT case last year, when TRENDnet, a maker of Web-enabled home security cameras, allowed hackers to post video feeds from people’s homes due to lax security practices.

The idea that the objects around you are connected to a network can feel intrusive – especially connected devices in personal spaces like your home or car. Though we may recognize a surveillance camera as a camera, it’s a bit unnerving and our privacy may feel compromised when vending machines and garbage cans begin spying on us. And do we really want targeted digital advertising streaming across every surface in our networked world?

Practical tips for mindful engagement with IoT

We will certainly reap profound benefits and conveniences with the innovative use of IoT. But with a larger network comes greater risk and a greater responsibility to develop our awareness and privacy practice. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be dazzled by the latest smart device that seems so cool. We should expect transparency and choices about data collection and use.

Sure, no one today expects to have to adjust the privacy settings on their refrigerator or coffee maker, but pretending this world won’t become a reality is perhaps not the best way to be mindful. Remember, you can engage with IoT on your own terms:

1. Make sure you clearly understand the benefits of the particular IoT technology (e.g. convenience, efficiency, time or money savings.)

2. What are the trade-offs to your privacy? (Consider: What data is collected? For what purpose? How is it shared and used? Who owns the data collected and used by the connected device?)

3. What are the data security risks?

4. What are your choices and how do you provide consent? Are your asked to opt-in or must you opt-out to the device tracking and level of connectivity?

5. What type of advertising can you expect to receive if you use the connected device?

As our networked world grows, it’s important we identify and protect our values from one paradigm shift to the next. We must determine for ourselves if the benefits of smart devices outweigh our privacy concerns.

For IoT to be sustainable, companies will need humanize IoT and make it relevant to our lives. We’re more than the data we generate, and it’s up to us to shape this new world.

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