There’s been a lot of comment about the coming Internet of things as the marketing hype from companies that would provide the relevant equipment gears up. The predictions about the potential impact made largely by academics seem pretty accurate.
But perhaps we should look at what it’s likely to mean to you, especially when you combine the IoT with the vast resources of big data and companies that profit from knowing what you’re up to at any given time.
Let’s say, for example, that you routinely have a couple of bottles of beer when you get home from work. There’s the convenience of making sure your favorite brew is being tracked by your refrigerator and that it’s communicating with your beer purveyor to make sure your shopping list includes the beer for restocking so you don’t run out.
But by collecting the data from the IoT and by some creative use of big data, your health insurance company probably knows about your beer consumption, too. If you’re lucky, that may mean you start getting calls about counseling, but it might also mean you lose your health insurance.
There are lots of scenarios making the rounds, such as getting alerts from your car that you’re 15 minutes from home, triggering a change to the temperature setting on your home air conditioner, or receiving a warning when temperatures go up in one room, alerting you to anything from a fire to a window accidentally being left open during the summer. So far, most of the possibilities seem pretty benign.
But the impact could get much more pervasive. AT&T is already well along with its plans for a connected car that will communicate on its own with a variety of services. Not only will such a car connect with the Internet for everything from maintenance requirements to restaurant menus, but it’s entirely capable of letting those same services know where you’re going and when. It may also communicate enough information that it will make the information about why you’re driving somewhere available.
So far, it looks like a real opportunity to make your quality of life better. You won’t run out of beer, your car will get the maintenance it needs, and you will save money on air conditioning. But the question that has to go along with these benefits is, what are you giving up in return for that convenience? What details of your private life will become public, potentially ending up in the wrong hands with access to too much data?
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the government or the National Security Agency in this discussion. The reason is that this is not about spying on your activity for real or imagined national security purposes. This is about increasing the visibility of your personal life voluntarily—by default—which means that privacy protections are no longer an issue. You are, after all, allowed to tell people, even indirectly, where you are and what you’re doing.
Internet of Things Sure to Reveal Even More About Us Than Smartphones
Let’s take my recent activity on Foursquare, the location-sharing service, where I announced that a friend and I were in line at a place in Chicago called Hot Doug’s. Just this mention would tell you where I am, of course, and it would also tell you that I’m a sausage aficionado and that I’m going to the world’s top emporium of encased meats. My health insurer would also know that I could be raising my cholesterol through my dietary choices. Someone might even notice that I grabbed a ride on Uber to get back to my hotel.
Right now, this sharing of what might have been considered private information in an earlier day is generally accepted. After all, I’m the one who is putting the info into Foursquare, and I’m the one who said it could go to Twitter and Facebook for my friends and colleagues to see. But suppose you didn’t make that decision consciously?
Suppose that instead of intentionally tweeting out your activities, your activities and plans were being shared on a global network that’s designed to make life easier for you? If you and your activities are being monitored by a network of sensors that communicate through the IoT, is there even a means by which you can control what is shared and what is not?
Right now, many of the sensors that are becoming part of the IoT already exist in some form. The Internet-connected coffee pot and the connected soda machine were some of the very earliest applications on the Internet. Since that time, this level of connection has grown larger. It reaches farther, and it has already sunk into the background.
My car, for example, already has the ability to connect to its manufacturer’s servers to schedule maintenance visits automatically and to warn me of impending problems that may otherwise go unnoticed. In this case, I had to give my car permission to do this. But when the car has its own connection, how long will such permission be required?
You’ll notice that I’m not decrying the loss of privacy here. There really are important things that could come out of the IoT. Perhaps health monitors could summon help in case of a heart attack, provided you consent to the monitoring. Or perhaps a beer monitor could help me lose weight by reminding me that more than two bottles of beer is too many.
But what seems to be overlooked here is the need for specific and informed consent. When the sensors and monitors are put in place, you should be able to know what they do and you should be able to turn them off—such as when the day comes that your team makes the playoffs and more than two beers are warranted.
But for the IoT to deliver its promise, it also needs to come with the ability to consent to share the data and control what and when it’s shared. Then the IoT will really have the chance to be the boon it could be.