Internet of Things: Rethinking privacy and information sharing

It is hard to imagine a world where the Internet of Things (IoT) is our collective “normal” – when our interaction with devices around us is so embedded in our lives, how we live, how we move, think and act that these devices have become as natural and normal as the clothes we wear, or the idea of driving a car to work.

Once the IoT becomes the normal way we think about managing data, making things work, and interacting with each other, then the rulebook for privacy, and information sharing, is essentially re-written. If we want to fully participate, to fully exploit the power of the IoT, then that price of that participation will be a surrendering of control of data, the like of which we have never experienced before.

Even a member of the most tightly knit hunter –gather group in the dimmest reaches of our past could, at a push, simply close the door to their hut, walk away into the woods, or go find a new cave to hide in.

For us, it will be much harder to disconnect from each other. And while going “off the grid” will remain an option, it will become harder and harder to do as more and more smart sensors permeate the infrastructure of society, the physical spaces of our planet, and our expectations of each other.

Simply “not being online” will become, I suspect, as much a fringe social choice as say, going without clothes and living in a nudist colony. (And what happens to nudist colonies in a world of omni-present drones, smart devices, and intelligent sensors one can only surmise…)

As more IoT devices become part of our daily lives, carrying messages for us, planning our day, buying our groceries, offering us entertainment, and ensuring we remain connected with everyone else, so the desire to stay online, to use the power of the IoT, will grow. We will no more want to avoid IoT than most of us would willingly lock our cell phones away for the day, or refuse to use a web browser. Yet, every interaction, every touch, gesture, glance, and word will be fodder for the devices around us and the big data fueled analysis engines that grind unceasingly on the information trails we leave behind. Pixel by pixel, the picture of our lives will be assembled, dissected, and sold on for profit.

So what does this mean for us now? How do we prepare ourselves for a world where the opportunities for a better life are staggering, but the price of admission is to bare our soul?

First and foremost, we must decide which parts of our lives are ‘saleable’ Are we comfortable with anyone knowing our shopping habits? What about our TV viewing habits? Perhaps. But who are you willing to share your health information with? Or what products you look at in stores? How often you open the fridge door, and at what times?

Businesses will want to gather everything they can about us, from any source they can. And they will want to reward us for that information. Often that reward will be in terms of a slight cost reduction in products, or more targeted services. But as sensors become more ubiquitous, the ability to collect data without our explicit knowledge or consent becomes easier. Or, in many cases, data can be gathered in “uninformed consent.” Users will happily accept end user agreements without fully reading or understanding them. Yet in the future those agreements may allow vendors to gather, and use, significant amounts of data that might form a very complete picture of a customer – a picture so complete that it exposes far more than would be reasonably expected. Each snippet of data forming part of an overall map of our lives, aggregated from many sources over time.

So how do we deal with this? As consumers, of course, we have to be more aware of the information that is being gathered about us by the products we use. But, we also have to be far better educated on what’s possible to extract from the data. Furthermore, we are going to have to look for governments to establish, and enforce, fair practices for data gathering and use.

In much the same way as governments play a role in ensuring that consumer products are safe to use, so they will also have to play a role in defining what information can be gathered about us when we use those products. Without that oversight, the trade of privacy for product will be hopelessly inequitable, and consumers, like ourselves, will consistently sell our most private lives far short of their real value.

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