Where Will We Draw the Privacy Line?

Monitor_padlockThe efficiencies, convenience and societal cost savings that will be realized from the IoT are so enormous that it is inevitable that the future will eventually become just what the IoT developers imagine – a seamlessly networked world that brings a lot of Star Trek into our lives. But we are not just going to magically pop to that great future and my gut tells me that there is going to be some gigantic growing pains for the technology and some major setbacks on the way to the inevitable future.

One only has to peek behind the curtain at some of the early attempts at developing IoT devices to understand where some of the snafus and problems are going to come from. One area where I foresee the possibility for a lot of backlash is privacy. In order for the IoT to work people are going to have to sacrifice some privacy. The question that I don’t see being asked is how much privacy the average person is going to be willing to give up to gain the convenience of using numerous IoT devices.

Already today we can see a little of the how social sharing interfaces with privacy. For example, when running monitors first hit the market my Facebook got filled with maps showing how far and how fast my various runner friends had run each day. But over a few months these all disappeared and I haven’t seen one in a while. This is not because they have ditched the monitors, but rather that after the novelty wore off people realized they didn’t want to share. They didn’t want their friends to notice that they took a day off from running or that they ran slowly or only did a short route on a given day. It turns out that people don’t want to automatically share things that might reflect negatively on them.

And if people quickly edited their sharing over something like a jogging monitor I can’t help but wonder how people are going to react when they realize that one of the biggest aspects of the IoT is that we will be constantly watched and monitored.

I heard this concern when it was announced that Google was buying Nest, the maker of smoke detectors and other security devices. The promise is being made that IoT devices are going to be smart (or at least that the network that controls them will be smart). And this means that our every movement will be tracked. It doesn’t sound particularly threatening if Google finds out what time of day we turn various lights on and off or when we enter certain rooms. But the technology is at the bare beginning and the fact is that eventually our devices will let companies like Google know more about us that we often know about ourselves.

The whole point of big data analytics is to look for patterns. Knowing how and when a certain person moves around the house is data that can be used to see a pattern. Google can compare the way you move to the way other people move and can see that there are 10,000 other people just like you in the US and that you also have a lot of other traits in common.

I know this sounds simplistic and that would be a big stretch to understand you from just being monitored by a few devices in your home. But it’s not going to eventually going to be just a few devices. It’s likely that there will be enough monitors in the average home where an outside company like Google could understand your sleep patterns, your eating habits, what you watch and read, who you talk to, how you exercise – basically everything about you.

And I just wonder if at some point if there will not be a big rebellion against that kind of invasion of privacy. I foresee a huge pushback coming against IoT until they can solve the privacy issue and give control to each person over how their own data is shared with the world. This is contrary to the goals of Google and others and it will be very interesting to see where society draws the line.

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