Embracing the Internet of Things Means Managing Privacy Risks With Care

The public needs to understand the risks and benefits of putting connected sensors into our gadgets, appliances, homes, cars and cities and connecting them to external networks.
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An Australian librarian who read my article about the "potential economic of Internet of Things" felt the article didn't empower or educate the public. Instead, Hugh Rundle said that I made the false equivalence between privacy and security. It's a fair criticism. While I didn't dismiss legitimate privacy concerns about connecting hundreds of millions of physical objects to the Internet, I should have done better explaining why those concerns aren't just a matter of education.

The "Internet of Things" is well on its way to becoming a buzzword, with tech companies spinning off their own coinages. IBM has "Smart Cities," GE has the "Industrial Internet," Cisco has "The Internet of Everything," Microsoft has "The Internet of Your Things." Like "big data" and "cloud computing," it's easy to lose what's actually happening under the hype.

That's unfortunate, because the public really does need to understand risks and benefits are present from putting sensors in our gadgets, appliances, homes, cars and cities and connecting them to external networks.

For instance, if you're thinking about getting a connected baby monitor, you should learn about who might be able to access it and be empowered to limit that access. If you bring a connected doll into your home, you should know when it's listening and to whom.

Whatever we call it, there's little doubt that this new aspect the network of networks is growing, quickly. In 2015, David Evans estimates that an average of 127 new "things" are connected to the Internet every second, or 328 million things every month.

In 2015, official Washington is still figuring out what the "Internet of Things" is, much less how to make the right policies governing it or its potential impact on politics.

Legislators are still learning what the Internet of Things is and holding hearings on what a connected world will mean.

The U.S. Senate passed a resolution on the Internet of Things that didn't mention security or privacy at all, focusing instead on its potential. It's possible that omission was related to lobbying in DC by technology and telecommunications companies like Intel, Belkin and Verizon. There's little doubt that industry lobbying on everything from social media to facial recognition is having an impact on Washington passing new laws on consumer privacy.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission, the primary regulator entrusted with protection the privacy of consumers in the United States, published a lengthy report on the privacy and security of the Internet of Things that recommended Congress hold off on passing legislation specifically focused on the area.

Keith Winstein, an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, suggests that policymakers in DC (and around the world) consider a new consumer right: "the right to eavesdrop on what our Things are saying about us."

Someday, perhaps we'll be able to request our data from data brokers, just as we do credit reports, and log onto dashboards that empower consumers with better privacy tools, just they do at Google. In the meantime, consumers have to hope that hardware and software makers are adopting FTC recommendations for "privacy by design and proceed with caution.

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