The Internet of things: A consumer revolution or security dilemma?
Before the revelations by Edward Snowden (and his journalist collaborators) in 2013 we reasonably assumed that our phone and computer-based communications were not entirely secure, but we had an expectation that there was security in appropriate usage.
Such a position was a re-hash of the old maxim that if you had nothing to hide, you had nothing to fear: or if you have nothing to hide, no-one will have a look. But the evidence and analysis done on the Snowden leaks demonstrated that this maxim was complete rot. You neither needed to have actually done, or to even be thinking of doing something, to find your communications routinely captured, stored and analysed (mostly by automated means).
Why intelligence is important to the State
The purpose of this intelligence effort was in part to find those who present a clear danger to the state or its citizenry, be it in attack mode, or in planning such an event, or in providing logistical or moral support. But the effort was mostly geared to calibrating what was normal, and then – by logical inference – to more reliably find outliers. The security analysts outside of government concluded that this was the more valuable element of this electronic intelligence gathering effort.
We could reasonably assume that those citizens who were vexed by the Snowden revelations may have changed their disposition and approach to their two-way communication devices. But there is an emerging area of consumerism that dwarfs the connectivity provided by email, social media and smart-phones: the internet of things (IoT).
What is the Internet of Things?
This is a catch-all term that describes network-enabled devices; devices that communicate with a network. The most visible of these devices are things such as ‘Google Glasses’ or the new wave of wearable fitness devices – all of which are constantly reporting back data to cloud-based servers. But these devices are easy to avoid.
Embedded intelligence in our homes
It is another class of devices that are far less easy to avoid: those in the home. Smart-televisions, PVRs and TV boxes are ubiquitous. Smart energy meters will become mandatory soon, with the UK rollout beginning next year. Thermostatic controls are beginning to become network enabled (to allow us to control heat at home from afar), network enabled CCTV is gaining popularity, and even refrigerators are becoming networked ostensibly to provide information on energy use, and other in-the-field usage data. These devices are far harder to avoid, and in several cases impossible.
The data streams off these devices provide an unprecedented picture of the life and preferences of the individuals using them. From simple data around sleep patterns and occupancy, through to other life-style preferences that can be gleaned from TV and on-demand viewing. Run-through psychological lenses, the notion of what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘outlier’ might be radically rewritten.
The IoT offers great scope for personalised services, and for offers (such as in energy) that are individually tailored. It will provide much better understandings of the way consumers use the full range of devices that improve their lives. But it does open up the possibility of even greater levels of surveillance and intrusion into the lives of the ordinary citizen.
The relative sensitivity or aversion to these developments will locate itself around in a difficult equation between faith and knowledge of process. The key questions centre on what information is collected, how it is stored, marked, analysed and shared, and by whom. The faith component is – simply – how we feel about the answers to those questions.
This Blog post was written by Dr Robert Dover – Director of the Glendonbrook Institute for Enterprise Development, and Associate Dean (Enterprise), at Loughborough University in London (LUiL)