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Boon or Big Brother?

April 26, 2012

Kitchens ordering food, washing machines turning on when energy demand on the grid is lowest, cars calling emergency services after an accident - all that could be part of an "Internet of Things."

illustration: objects flowing out of computer
Image: Tania Grace Knuckey

The European Commission has recently initiated public consultation on the so-called Internet of Things. Scheduled to be completed this summer, the consultation is a step toward potential regulation.

And while some say the Internet of Things is just around the corner, others think it is already here. That's why concerns such as privacy, security and who has access to data collected by governments and companies should be at the top of the agenda, they say.

Ubiquitous computing

Your scale probably doesn't recognize you when you step on it, but it could in future. Not only would it recognize you, it could also synchronize weight information with your smart phone, personal computer and data stored in cloud computing.

It is one example of how the Internet of Things would work in everyday life. On the most basic level, the Internet of Things involves fitting objects with a microchip and a communications antenna, explained Martin Spindler, a strategy consultant based in Berlin.

Using radio frequency identification (RFID), every real object in the analogue world could have a unique identifying number, like an IP address.

Rob van Kranenburg, who founded a European think tank called the Internet of Things Council, said the concept first surfaced around the end of the 1990s under the term "ubiquitous computing."

The dropping cost of data storage and emerging Web analytics is making it possible to "get rid of the mouse, get rid of the keyboard," van Kranenburg told DW. Connectivity is coming "out of the computer and into the real world," he said.

The proliferation of smart phones has been another factor in making the Internet of Things a reality, Spindler told DW.

Hand holding iPhone 4S
Apple's iPhone brought smart phones to the mass consumer market in 2007Image: picture alliance/landov

As of 2008, the number of objects connected to the Internet - including smart phones - exceeded the number of people on earth, according to networking company Cisco.

"But smart phones were only the beginning. The next step is 'smart things,'" said Spindler, who also participates in the think tank.

Smart objects

Talk of smart things, smart homes and smart cities refers to how objects not only communicate with each other, but also link to the Internet.

The scale, for example, could share your weight through the wireless network in your home. Of course, this presents potential problems.

Computing devices and the Internet knowing your weight may be good for fitness purposes, and possibly even benefit public demographics tracking. But it's likely you wouldn't want your neighbors to know your weight - much less your insurance company.

Those promoting the Internet of Things tout its potential benefits. A "smart" washing machine communicating with a "smart" grid could run when energy demand is the lowest - during the middle of the night, for example. This would make for a more efficient system, Spindler pointed out.

But privacy and data security are growing concerns in the nascent Internet of Things.

Data security

A European conference on the Internet of Things is scheduled for this July in Italy, while an international conference on the topic will take place in China this October.

In between, the first International Conference on the Security of Internet of Things is being put on in Kerala, India, this August.

Putting digital connectivity into the real world in an Internet of Things brings "real potential for bad people to do bad things," said Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University and program co-chair of the conference.

Using the example of a smart electrical meter hooked into a smart grid, Anderson told DW that hackers could potentially shut down electricity in whole regions, making them vulnerable.

And at present, he believes, "the mechanisms countries have to ensure data security are often not much more than a joke."

Building in safeguards

So far during the European Commission's consultation process, concerns about data protection and security top the list, said Ryan Heath, a spokesperson for the commission's Digital Agenda.

Of the approximately 350 opinions that had come in a week after the consultation started, more than 300 thought that guidelines and standards should be created to ensure data confidentiality.

"People are saying, we like the convenience and potential, but we want safeguards," Heath told DW.

EU promotional image
The EU hopes to use the Internet of Things to increase energy efficiency and track climate change, among other thingsImage: European Commission

Spindler thinks it's good that the European Union is concerned, but is afraid the predominant interest will be top-down. This could "strangle bottom-up innovation, which is what the Internet was based on," Spindler said.

After consultation is completed this July, the commission will consider regulation or legislation, Heath said. It could take up to three years for a legislative proposal to emerge from dialogue between the European Parliament and EU member states, he added.

And Heath asserted that the primary purpose of the regulation is full and open debate. "We need to make sure our thinking is in tune with average users," Heath said.

Van Kranenburg, who thinks the regulatory effort is coming rather late in the game, agrees that the consultation is a good thing, citing a lack of public debate on the issue, for example in China and the United States.

Big Brother effect?

In the US, the House of Representatives recently passed a transportation bill requiring mandatory installation of "black box" tracking devices in all vehicles as of 2015.

Expected to be approved by Senate, the law would enable communication between cars and with stationary objects, for example computer chips in light poles, placing mobile citizens into an Internet of Things.

Data could be accessed by court order - which some are concerned would enhance the ability of the government to monitor its people.

Screenshot of iPhone tracker plotting locations of an iPad
The Internet of Things could allow people to be trackedImage: picture alliance / dpa

This "Big Brother" scenario is a "legitimate concern," Anderson told DW.

Spindler, who agrees, stated the best remedy would be to legally restrict what the state or other parties can do with this information.

This is also the purpose of the consultation, Heath said. "We don't necessarily want a Big-Brother society," he added.

Heath pointed to a voluntary measure EU member states will be implementing by 2015, called eCall.

With eCall, any automobile involved in a collision would automatically send data to emergency services, allowing for quicker location and deployment of help. Traffic services would also be in the loop, and could make adjustments accordingly.

Heath sees the measure as a good balance between data sharing and data protection, as limitations on sending the information are clearly defined.

Anderson said that consumer protection should be rethought as objects become smart. He thinks that end users need to be given better rights to sue liable parties, for example software companies.

Not just protection, but also empowerment of end users should be considered, others say.

'Will reveal all'

Van Kranenburg called privacy fears a "red herring" distracting from the more important issues of inclusiveness and access to data collected.

"The Internet of Things will reveal all," van Kranenburg told DW. "The measuring is not the problem, rather, it's who gets the data," he added.

In van Kranenburg's vision of smart cities of the future, companies track your every move, knowing your preferences and leasing products automatically tailored to your individual desires.

Facebook logo on laptop screen
Facebook already uses collected personal data to display personalized adsImage: dapd

"Your kitchen will order food for you," van Kranenburg told DW.

But van Kranenburg wants to see that all people, and not just privileged upper classes, have access to such lives.

He also thinks end users should be the ones holding the keys to the gateway of such a network.

Van Kranenburg envisions the collection of data at a local level into a "community dashboard," where people decide what to remove or what to add, and then to whom they'd like to sell it.

"The benefits of such technology should apply to the whole population."

Author: Sonya Angelica Diehn
Editor: Nicole Goebel