I have often written here about the Internet of Things (IoT) and the promise it holds for various industries. Moving on from the cliché of the fridge that knows when you are running out of food, the IoT holds enormous promise for offering the ability for objects and systems to make pre-emptive decisions.
The car is a great example. We have long had warning lights on cars to indicate particular problems such as low oil or a high engine temperature, but by gathering data and having the ability to analyse it as a whole, cars are getting far more intelligent and able to self-diagnose before problems become serious. This becomes even more critical when public or commercial vehicles can perform this kind of self-diagnosis. For example a Boeing 777 can generate twenty terabytes of data per engine per hour – a fantastic resource for monitoring that all systems are functioning normally.
Personal fitness is another excellent example, and being a runner I really like the ability to be able to look back at previous runs. I can see not only the distance covered, but also the weather, the location, and the hills I tackled. I can use this information without additional processing just to plan new runs or I can crunch the data to get a great insight on my own performance.
But is there a downside to all this data collection and could it cause individuals to reject certain products or services?
Facebook Local Awareness advertising allows businesses – especially retailers – to advertise to Facebook users that are geographically close. The business creates an advert and targets it to a particular demographic – a specific age group or people who like certain products – then Facebook takes care of ensuring that when suitable people are geographically close to the business they are served an ad on their phone.
To some people this sounds great. If I’m the kind of person who likes shopping for fashionable clothes and as I walk past a boutique they send a 25% off voucher, but only with validity for the next hour, then I might stop by and buy something. To other people this is going to feel like an enormous invasion of privacy. Not only is a social network – in this case Facebook – monitoring what I like and dislike to build up a profile of me as a consumer, but now they are monitoring where I am too.
A recent feature by Irish technology expert Maria Farrell in The Guardian argued that by 2020 over 100 billion individual devices would be connected to the Internet. With around 7 billion people on the planet that’s around 14 online devices for every person. If anything, I believe that is a conservative estimate given the rate of change.
The implications for this are clear. Even if you don’t agree with the way that an organisation is using your data – perhaps like the retailer example – most people believe that there is nothing they can do. We have accepted so many services as ‘free’ knowing that we pay for them with our data and now that we have come this far there is almost nothing that can be done to reverse the situation.
In The Guardian, Farrell argues:
“The unholy alliance of CCTV, face recognition, mobile phones, fitness trackers and other wearable technologies, data brokerage and analytics, private ownership and control of previously public spaces like city squares, and increasingly wide-ranging policing powers mean we live in an urban world of ambient surveillance we never voted for. We are no longer citizens enjoying civic space; we are crops to be harvested, we are potential risks to be controlled. The internet of things does all that for us and more.”
The implication is that data will not always be used in the way we assume it might be. Health trackers that monitor runs might be informing health insurers about how you are looking after yourself. Cars might not just be self-diagnosing problems, but also telling your insurer if you drive aggressively. Credit scoring agencies might be building up a picture of your likes, dislikes, and habits in addition to spending patterns. Employers may be monitoring your every arrival, departure, and keystroke at the office.
Only the powerful can argue against this. The people who need a job or need to drive a regular or need a health insurer cannot refuse the terms and conditions that are demanded. If a health insurer demands that you offer information on your health habits in return for insurance cover then what can the average person possibly do to protest?
The Internet of Things has many clear benefits to society, but it is this question of data use and privacy that will cause many doubts to surface. Some have rejected social networks because they want to avoid sharing too much information about their life, but when information sharing becomes a condition of employment or insurance, it will be impossible to avoid.
Can we handle the implications of a world where everything is known about you as a person or is there still time to preserve some privacy?