The Internet of Things poses a serious danger to privacy, writes Hamza Shaban in an article for The Verge. Reporting on the US Federal Trade Commission’s recent report, Shaban worries that the commission’s recommendations do not go far enough to protect consumers.
Shaban’s main concern is not usual issue of potential government abuse of new technology, but rather the insidious creeping of companies into our private lives, and the potentially harmful results that could arise from their harvesting of mass data. With an increasing plethora of connected devices providing unprecedented quantities of data on consumers’ daily lives and behaviour, and even their biological qualities, private companies will be able to engage with consumers as they never have before. Part of that will take the form of highly specific marketing – a practice that might be creepy, but isn’t necessarily harmful (And this isn’t a secret; one researcher interviewed by Shaban freely admits that his company, Ditto Labs, uses consumer habit data collected from digital pictures – “affinity data”, as he calls it – to more effectively target marketing efforts.)
But there is also the possibility that data will be used in a way that is more dangerously discriminatory. Pam Dixon, the World Privacy Forum’s executive director, worries about a world in which health insurance providers can ask consumers to provide biometric data as part of a policy application. Scott Peppet, a law professor at the University of Colorado, points out that, with the coming smart cars, such data could be used to determine car insurance policies as well; and he adds that individuals who refuse to disclose personal information will likely suffer under the suspicions of the companies requesting it such that it would be better to disclose even negative information anyway – you might get a better health insurance policy if you disclose your unhealthy cardiac data, for example, than if you choose to keep it secret.
Shaban emphasizes that the Internet of Things will bring many benefits to consumers, but it could also lead to many pitfalls if not regulated adequately. While the FTC struggles to find a balance, consumers will need to make sure their voices are heard – and companies sensitive to consumer attitudes should listen carefully before surveilling too deeply.