IoT consumer technologies raise ethical questions

While IoT technologies may be poised to take over markets like connected homes and smart cities, they are raising moral questions for data purveyors.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- While IoT technologies may be poised to upend how consumers live, even industry leaders...

are dumfounded by data security and ethics issues that loom large over the Internet of Things.

According to prognostications like Gartner's, the Internet of Things (IoT) market is due to reach more than 26 billion connected devices by 2020 -- and some estimates are twice that, at 50 billion. Even today, IoT devices have wrought data smog, a massive volume and velocity of data that companies now have to ingest, manage and analyze. According to some estimates, 10% of the world's total data by 2020 will be generated by IoT devices.

IoT scenarios are making traditional security and identity management questions far more complex. There are deep concerns about ethical use of Internet of Things data  and how various entities will ethically and securely manage IoT consumer data. Companies, in turn, need to look down the road and consider their security and policy approach to IoT consumer technologies.

John Ellis, managing director at Ellis & Associates, raised tough questions for audience members at Internet of Things World. In an IoT-dominated universe, a connected home may become a place where citizens unknowingly have their voices and faces recorded without opting in. And in Europe, the right to be forgotten legislation has already challenged search engines like Google to decide whether they will remove information from search results that individual citizens deem "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant." IoT consumer data that makes its way to the Web and the cloud may pose similar concerns, as citizens have their data recorded in video streams, on wearable devices and elsewhere.

IoT consumer technologies questions rise to surface

Ellis highlighted four nagging concerns that could prove obstacles for consumers as they consider IoT devices, or as companies consider how to incorporate IoT into operations. 

  1. Is there a right to be forgotten? Is there a right to have one's data removed from the Web? "What are we doing to ensure we have the technology, tools and policies to make it work?" Ellis asked. "If you talk to Google, it's really, really hard to fulfill the European mandate."
  2. What does privacy mean in a fully connected world? Ellis noted that his home has Amazon's Echo, equipped with the Alexa voice service, which provides updates and can search the Web, but also records audio. Concerns about "Hello Alexa; goodbye privacy" are real. Ellis addressed those concerns in saying that guests at his home might need to be able to actively "opt in" before entering his home in case of concerns about having their voice recorded. Ditto for video services in smart homes.
  3. How do we connect insecure things to IoT? Ellis noted that connected cars are of the moment, but they present points of failure in IoT systems, where these cars can be hacked or cause accidents -- particularly with self-driving cars. "We have a world of insecurity that we want to connect to," Ellis noted.
  4. Because we can connect something, should we? Ellis noted that as IoT consumer technologies become commoditized, it may be cheaper to build devices that are connected, but that may create redundancy or ethical concerns.

Ellis ultimately challenged attendees to consider that data security is only part of the IoT equation. Another equally serious question concerns how companies, governments and even individual citizens will handle data ethically.

An audience member, who requested anonymity, has an IoT-connected Nest thermostat, but his home is by no means fully connected. He said he's more concerned about the immaturity of IoT technologies overall, rather than the potential for consumer data to be abused in the kinds of scenarios Ellis described. While he conceded a connected home might generate data that could be required as evidence in a legal case, right now, he just wants to make sure that "my connected garage door opener really opens when I get home."

Companies have yet to prove to consumers that their technologies are fail-safe and resistant to hackers. Once those baseline concerns with IoT devices have been addressed, then consumers may start to entertain some of the ethical questions surrounding the abuse of the data.

Nonetheless, as Ellis indicated, the future for IoT needs a roadmap. "Without understanding these questions, we don't understand the future," he said.

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