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Science

Will the Internet of Things mean it's impossible to escape total surveillance?

It's not only people that use the Internet. Networked things are on it too. And they track our every move. If you didn't already know that, you do now. Here's how to escape total surveillance.

What is the Internet of Things?

From fitness trackers to smartwatches and electric toothbrushes - the Internet of Things (IoT) is shorthand for an ever growing network and communication between things over the Internet.

Who invented the Internet of Things?

Mark Weiser, a visionary computer scientist and nerd at Xerox in Palo Alto, California, first described a vision of an "Internet of Things" in his essay, "The Computer for the 21st Century." But it was Kevin Ashton, an entrepreneur and technology pioneer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who coined the term.

How big is the Internet of Things?

Gartner, a market research institute, estimates that by the year 2020 about 21 billion devices will be networked. At the moment it's about 6.4 billion devices. To put that in perspective, there are only about 3.4 billion active - human - Internet users. So already more machines communicate via the Internet than people. Gartner predicts this year alone 5.5 million new devices per day will connect with the Internet of Things.

What things communicate?

When it comes to the Internet of Things, one of the best known concepts is that of the so-called Smart Home. Smart Homes are modern buildings fitted with sensors and micro-computers which communicate autonomously with one another, constantly exchanging data. For instance, the heating system will call up the latest weather data and adjust room temperatures accordingly. Another example is the networked car: you're driving along, low on gas, and the car automatically looks for the nearest gas station before navigating you there. Fitness trackers no longer merely collect data about our bodily functions and activity rates, but also transmit these data direct to our smartphones. Now even our electric toothbrushes track our behavior, sending us notifications when we forget to clean our teeth.

What data do machines exchange?

Your car and smartphone may, for instance, use location data to compare traffic reports - if there's a problem on your current route, you'll be presented with an alternative. Fitness trackers and smartwatches mostly collect vital signs, such as blood pressure, blood sugar, and body temperature, and they can warn us if we get too close to our limits when we do sport. Meanwhile, at home, your smart fridge will use these data to find the recipe for an appropriately healthy meal online and send you the shopping list to your smartphone.

Are we at risk of total surveillance?

These electronic systems make many things easier for us, but they also track and document our behavior without pause. Often, the manufacturers of the devices can access these valuable data, allowing them to compile detailed profiles of our movements, health and consumer behavior.

Here's how to escape total surveillance.

Before you use any such technology you should always take the time to inform yourself about the types of data that are collected and how they will be used. You should ask the following questions:

Which data will my device collect?

Why is it collecting these data?

Who can access these data?

What is the manufacturer allowed to do with the data?

Will my data be shared with third-parties?

Can I use the device without sharing my data with the manufacturer?

The more you know about the dataflow, the better you'll be able to understand and minimize the risks.

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