Internet of things = Big Data – Big Brother?

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This summer, George Orwell, the frighteningly prescient author of the classic novel 1984, would have turned 110 years old. In honor of the big day, a Dutch art collective, FRONT404, decorated Utrecht’s ubiquitous security surveillance cameras with party hats in an attempt to remind us that these devices are there, always on. The artists state: “By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays. And [how] the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.”

But the real surveillance state, if we want to call it that, is not necessarily as blatant as the camera on every street corner (although the cameras play their own big part). The real “surveillance” is in the data collected about you every day in your online dealings.

And contributing to the acceleration of this trend is the much-discussed “internet of things” (IoT) concept. A spate of articles about the popular IoT idea has churned through the media, mostly painting the rosy picture of convenience and ease enabled by connecting everything (did we learn nothing from the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica about the dangers of networks?), but also covering topics, such as the challenges of keeping the “things” secure and the potential lines crossed in terms of personal privacy. But if we stop to consider a few of the basic applications of IoT, such as rental cars with “black boxes” attached to monitor renters’ driving – or insurance-company customers and their driving, there are implications. What is the line between the collection of beneficial data and the violation of privacy?

A recent TechCrunch article framed the “monitored driving” angle as though it’s mostly a positive, but does – and we should all be vigilant here – sound the alarm on the caution we need to take in weighing the implications. In this article it is presented as letting you take risk into your own hands and gain from a prevention-based versus reactive insurance claim model, but what do you give up for that? The insurance industry and its relationship with drivers/consumers is highlighted as a potential source of positive change through IoT and the application of data. Insurance companies want to use data to personalize your policies, which will supposedly make coverage and claims more reflective of your personal use. “The idea of ‘connected coverage’ means that insurance companies will encourage you to take risk management into your own hands by leveraging IoT. Ultimately, that could mean saving a big chunk of cash.”

Saving cash = good news! Right? Probably, yes. But the new “You + IoT + Provider = A New Dialogue” equation demands a greater vigilance than most consumers are willing to exert. Many compare the changes and conveniences enabled by IoT and Big Data to finally living in a “Jetsons” era. But the flipside is living under the watchful eye of Big Brother. We accept it because of its potential bonuses and benefits, but I ask again: where does insight end and intrusion begin? The pool of data available to entities in all industries will continue to proliferate – how can this be managed – treating you, based on the individualized data collected about you, as a unique customer, without penalizing you for the same body of behavioral data?

A Backchannel/Medium piece by Angus Hervey perfectly expressed the ambivalence I feel and the questions we should all be asking:

“A world where our entire physical environment has the ability to exchange data with the internet and other connected objects. A world that’s more convenient, more streamlined, and more responsive to our needs. It’s also a terrifying prospect. A world of ubiquitous surveillance, a world where privacy is no longer a guaranteed right but instead a privilege you must fight for. The possibility of data breaches, backdoors into home systems, vehicles being hacked by shadowy forces, are very real.

Start thinking differently about the IoT. Make sure you place it within its larger technological context, and join the vanguard that’s establishing new design practices and principles for how we’re going to manage it. It’s not more of the same. It’s something new. And once we get past that stupid name, it’s going to change the world.”

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