The Internet of Things: Biased, Opaque and Unfair

Maybe I'm naïve, but until recently it seemed that my relationship with the Internet was reasonably open and balanced. When I use Google's search engine, I get great information almost instantly. In exchange, Google collects data about me so it can sell online ads. The more I search, the more Google learns about me. This information makes it possible for the company to deliver increasingly targeted ads through its AdWords network. We all understand the arrangement. If we don't like it, we can always use a search engine that doesn't track users such as DuckDuckGo. The search results aren't as good, but your privacy is maintained.

Most of us also like our free email and willingly cede yet a bit more of our privacy to avoid paying $5-10 a month for a private, secure email account. "Free" email from Yahoo, Google and other service providers does come at the cost of being barraged with targeted ads that are often annoying. But the terms are on the table -- your email account costs you nothing. Same with Facebook. It's nominally "free," but users know they are "paying" by having ads inserted as "suggested posts" in their timelines.

It only seems like a fair exchange. I get to use Google's search engine and have a free email account in exchange for bits and pieces of my privacy. Facebook connects me with my friends and family at no financial cost, just more loss of privacy. It's as open and balanced as you can expect since most Internet users want everything to be free. But this transparent, symmetric model of online services is rapidly changing. Big corporations and venture capitalists see the possibilities of using the Internet of Things (IoT) to capture even more high-value private consumer data.

The shift from the Internet of PCs to the Internet of Things is driven by a new generation of computer technology. Tiny, Wi-Fi-enabled computers make it possible for companies to create millions of "data vampires". These stealthy devices will collect trillions of bits of data about the daily activity of consumers. Packaged as smart home automation devices to make life easier, companies slip these spies into homes to silently collect information about what is happening inside. Steady streams of personal data are sent 24/7 to corporate "big data" systems in the cloud. You might have thought you were buying a "learning" thermostat or "smart" light switch. But what you didn't realize is you brought a corporate spy into your house. This agent for big business is always watching and always collecting data about your private life.

Sadly, a biased and opaque Internet is quickly becoming the norm. Corporations have abandoned any pretense of transparency. They use legal jargon to hide the nature and extent of information gathering by their silent data vampires. Even worse, big business expects unsuspecting consumers to pay for these corporate spies. Then, after buying their data vampires, consumers are required to spend hours installing them. It's no wonder a recent Gallup poll found consumer confidence in big business near the bottom of the list. Only Congress has a worse rating than big business.

This is unfair. We don't believe consumers should blindly accept an opaque Internet of Things that is biased to enrich the technical elite at our expense. That's why I co-founded the Open IoT Foundation with a mission to expose data vampires. We felt our trust was being violated by high-tech business leaders who have lost any sense of social responsibility. We don't think consumers would be so quick to embrace the Internet of Things if they knew the full story about how these devices are programmed to spy on them inside their own homes.

Consumers must assert their online rights by demanding an open Internet of Things that we propose in our Consumer IoT Bill of Rights. A balanced, transparent and fair Internet protects personal privacy and gives consumers control over their personal environments.

The time to restore transparency, balance and fairness to the Internet is now--before it's too late.

Gary Ebersole is co-founder of the Open IoT Foundation. He blogs at Data Vampires Chronicle and HuffPost.