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Don't shun the Internet of Things over privacy and security worries

Column We have the chance to enforce data protection
Fri Mar 21 2014, 16:50

V3 and The INQUIRER editor Madeline BennettTHE INTERNET OF THINGS is a term that has been around for about 15 years, with its origins in barcodes and radio frequency identity (RFID) tags, and evolving via near-field communications (NFC) and QR codes. But it's the rise of smart devices and wearable technology, which has only started to take off in the past few years, that will see the Internet of Things come into its own.

The technology has now developed to a point that it allows tiny sensors or identifiers to be applied to millions of devices, whether that's stock on a shop floor, internet-connected thermostats, smart glasses or connected cars.

Spurred on by developments such as Google's Android Wear, an operating system designed for smartwatches, organisations are looking to apply sensors to a huge range of devices, allowing us to monitor and manage activities like fitness and energy use - which brings up several issues around privacy. Motorola and LG have already unveiled their smartwatches running Android Wear, and I'm sure other hardware makers will be in on the Google wearables action soon.

With the proliferation of such devices, along with the influx of apps available on smartphones and meters to capture sensor data and monitor activity, there are numerous benefits available for organisations and individuals from the rise of the Internet of Things. Worried you're not well? Just monitor your heart rate with your mobile phone. Want the house to be warm on your arrival on a cold winter's day? Just send a message to your heating system via your tablet.

But with these potential benefits come a downside around privacy. Who will be in control of all this data being collected, and how can individuals ensure their personal details like health status are being adequately protected?

There's also the security problems that arise from the IoT, with new ways for black hats to wreak havoc or ciphon off cash. Just this week, a worm that leverages the Internet of Things to mine cryptocurrencies was found to have infected around 31,000 devices.

We've been running a debate this week at The INQUIRER where we've been exploring these issues and hearing from technology and legal experts on whether they think the Internet of Things will kill privacy.

After scouring through the dozens of comments we've had on the debate site, the key message seems to be that we need a way to control the amount of data flying around due to the proliferation of apps, smart devices and thirst for knowledge about our habits - while still taking advantage of all the convenience and other benefits of IoT.

One interesting scenario painted during the debate was how an individual could take advantage of the sensors applied to a prescription bottle to get reminders if they've forgotton to take their tablets that day; but on the downside, this information could be shared with an insurance company, which would then raise their health insurance premiums - or deny coverage completely.

I'd be happy to share a small amount of data about some of my habits and activities in return for convenience, for example faster purchase of some tickets online as my phone knows which station I'm at, or being able to check my oven is turned off when I'm on the tube. But I don't want that data to be shared with more than the one organisation I need to share it with for that particular task.

It's clear that we want to take advantage of the IoT for certain areas of our lives - but none of us want to lose all rights or control over our own data. Privacy policies, legislation and technology all need to come together for the IoT to benefit users and organisations equally.

We as users have the opportunity to vote with our feet. If we push back on the wearable tech makers and other IoT vendors about our privacy concerns, and favour those devices that offer proper data control, it will force them to protect our personal data. I imagine many people will be only too happy to sign away their rights via a quick online user policy, for quick and easy access to apps and services on their smart devices. So the rest of us will just need to do a better job of insisting that the industry resolves the privacy issues to our satisfaction. µ


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