Beyond Google’s Looking Glass – The Internet of Things is Already Here

Seal of the United States Federal Trade Commis...

(photo: Wikipedia)

Perhaps triggered by the New York Times coverage of Google Glass, The FTC announced both a call for submissions and a workshop related to the Internet of Things and its implications on privacy, fair trade practice, and security implications for both data and people. The FTC announcement highlights both the benefits and risks of device connectivity.

Connected devices can communicate with consumers, transmit data back to companies, and compile data for third parties such as researchers, healthcare providers, or even other consumers, who can measure how their product usage compares with that of their neighbors.  The devices can provide important benefits to consumers:  they can handle tasks on a consumer’s behalf, improve efficiency, and enable consumers to control elements of their home or work environment from a distance. At the same time, the data collection and sharing that smart devices and greater connectivity enable, pose privacy and security risks.

The issue is not new. The ITU released a 2005 study discussing the implications of the Internet of Things. The ITU described a near, technological future in which “industrial products and everyday objects will take on smart characteristics and capabilities. … Such developments will turn the merely static objects of today into newly dynamic things, embedding intelligence in our environment, and stimulating the creation of innovative products and entirely new services.”

I have previously described some of these concerns in an article, Mortgaging the Meme.[1]

In each of these situations, an automated and consumer-defined relationship will replace the pre-existing activities. In many situations, this will create efficiency and convenience for the consumer, but it will also reduce the opportunities for human interaction and subtly rewrite the engagement between customer and company. Those that understand this change will adjust their technologies to improve the service and increase the customer‘s reliance on its systems. Companies that do not understand how this engagement will occur, risk alienating customers and losing markets quickly.

Beyond consumer interactions, other uses may arise. Ethical and privacy concerns regarding misuse tend to focus on government, business and organized crime. These include unwarranted surveillance, profiling, behavioral advertising and target pricing campaigns. As a result, as companies increasingly rely on these tools, they also bear a responsibility to do so in a socially positive manner that increases the public‘s estimation of the company.

Timing for the FTC submissions and workshop are overdue. Reading the New York Times quote regarding app developers, there is a sense that unlike the technology giants such as Microsoft and Google, the developers are thinking more about the technology’s potential than its potential impact. One such example from the Times: “‘You don’t carry your laptop in the bathroom, but with Glass, you’re wearing it,’ said Chad Sahlhoff, a freelance software developer in San Francisco. ‘That’s a funny issue we haven’t dealt with as software developers.’”

Many fields will benefit from increased device connectivity. Just a few:

  • Public transportation systems designed around real-time usage and traffic patterns.
  • Prescription monitoring to help patients take the right medications at the correct time.
  • Fresher, healthier produce.
  • Protection of pets and children.
  • Social connectivity, with photo-tagging and group-meeting moving into the real world.
  • Interactive games played on a real-world landscape.

There are also law enforcement uses that must be carefully considered. After the Boston Marathon attack, for example, calls for public surveillance will undoubtedly increase, including calls for adding seismic devices and real-time echo-location. Gunshots, explosions, and even loud arguments could become self-reporting.

Common household products sometimes become deadly in large quantities. RFID technology could be used to monitor quantity concentration of potentially lethal materials and provide that data to the authorities.

The consumer use, public use, and law enforcement use must be thoughtfully reviewed to balance the benefits of the technology with the intrusions into privacy and the legacy of retrievable information that such technology creates.

FTC staff will accept submissions through June 1, 2013, electronically through iot@ftc.gov or in written form. The workshop will be held on November 21st. These are the questions posed by the FTC thus far:

  • What are the significant developments in services and products that make use of this connectivity (including prevalence and predictions)?
  • What are the various technologies that enable this connectivity (e.g., RFID, barcodes, wired and wireless connections)?
  • What types of companies make up the smart ecosystem?
  • What are the current and future uses of smart technology?
  • How can consumers benefit from the technology?
  • What are the unique privacy and security concerns associated with smart technology and its data?  For example, how can companies implement security patching for smart devices?  What steps can be taken to prevent smart devices from becoming targets of or vectors for malware or adware?
  • How should privacy risks be weighed against potential societal benefits, such as the ability to generate better data to improve healthcare decision making or to promote energy efficiency?
  • Can and should de-identified data from smart devices be used for these purposes, and if so, under what circumstances?

While the FTC has asked some good questions, they are only the beginning. Please submit your thoughts and join the FTC conversation.


[1] Jon M. Garon, Mortgaging the Meme: Financing and Managing Disruptive Innovation, 10 NW. J. TECH. & INTELL. PROP. 441 (2012).

Advertisements