IoT Balancing Act: Addressing Privacy, Security Issues

The Internet of things looks promising, even as the technology walks a tightrope over privacy and security concerns.

IoT balancing act

San Jose, CALIF.—You can look at the impact of new technology in many different ways. Analyst Larry Downes thinks Star Trek had it about right.

"I've always been an optimist about the outcome of technology," said Downes, co-author of Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation. "In Star Trek, you had the United Federation of Planets or the Borg, where everyone is nobody and there's one giant collective."

Still Downes noted that a lot of companies are rushing to join the Internet of things (IoT) party without much, if any, thought to issues, such as privacy and security, and some startups aren't creating products with privacy as part of the design. "There's a risk case scenario and even bad PR when someone hacks a baby monitor and starts talking to someone's kid," he said. "That's the downside to a permission-less culture."

Downes was part of a panel discussion in a Churchill Club event here titled What is our Digital Destiny? The impact of IoT and where it's headed was a key talking point.

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and senior director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), said the rapid pace of technology is driving lower prices and creating new applications that leverage the collective power of connected devices.

"There's no reason why a fitness device can't look at my calendar and say I won't reach my [fitness] goal unless I deviate from the course I'm on," said DuBravac, author of Digital Destiny, How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live and Communicate. Devices will be able, for example, to make vacation recommendations based on a range of data they're privy to, he said.

He also warned this is a bit of a tightrope walk for companies eager to personalize their marketing, but concerned they might "freak you out" over what they know about you.

Flying High

A third panelist, Robin Murdoch, gave an interesting example of just how far that knowledge extends. As an experiment, Murdoch, managing director of Internet & Social Business at Accenture, extracted all the data he could find about himself from his Fitbit, Google and social networks. One of the surprising things he learned from Google is that his average altitude is 612 feet.

Now that level of personal data may well be more of a curiosity than anything useful, but Murdoch said it's indicative of new data sets and new opportunities for developers and companies.

"Think about our personal memory space, things like photos and fitness data, and think about the narrative of bringing that all together and telling a story," he said. "I know there is Facebook history [i.e. Timeline], but how can this data provide insights for consumers and also in the business world?"

One area is health care. Downes noted DNA testing company 23andMe recently announced an agreement to let pharmaceutical giant Pfizer query 23andMe's database of more than 650,000 patients. The aim is to identify new associations between genes, diseases and traits. The first trial will focus on the genetics of lupus in 5,000 23andMe customers who have that illness.

"Your information is valuable, but it's abstractly collected," said Downes. He also noted this is one of those tradeoffs we'll see more of as more data sets become available. While the data is collected anonymously, there is still "a creepy factor" knowing it's data about you that someone else possesses, he said.

The Internet of things was a star attraction at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show, and DuBravac said he came away from the event with one overriding message: "It was like the theme song from the LEGO movie, but instead of 'everything is awesome' it was 'everything is connected.'"

As one example, he points to the announcement by home thermostat company Nest of a partner program that at first seemed bizarre because the companies had little to do with Nest's product. This includes car companies, Fitbit, computerized lock companies and Whirlpool dryers.

What's the connection? You leave your house and the car alerts your thermostat that no one is home so it can lower the heat. And since the dryer also knows no one is home, it can slow down the cycle. Or you walk in and the lock alerts the thermostat to change things to the temperature to a level you like.

"It's going to be interesting to see which [technologies and approaches] survive and how they will interact," said Murdoch.

David Needle

David Needle

Based in Silicon Valley, veteran technology reporter David Needle covers mobile, bi g data, and social media among other topics. He was formerly News Editor at Infoworld, Editor of Computer Currents...