Privacy-wary consumers can take some comfort in the settings tab of our smartphones or browsers, which allow us to tell a device not to track our location or monitor what we are reading. But what can they do when the internet-connected device is inside their body or mounted on a city lamp-post?
“For many of these devices, there’s no natural user interface…it’s a design challenge,” Nicole Wong, the former deputy CTO at the White House, said at Gigaom’s Structure Connect conference in San Francisco Tuesday.
According to Wong, the internet of things era will pose privacy challenges that are even more daunting than those posed by the internet.
This is not because many new internet-connected objects lack a privacy settings button, but because they will start to pull all sorts of people — even those who aren’t on the internet in the first place — into connected databases through photo tagging and other sensor features.
Many people for now take comfort in the fact that whoever controls all those sensors — the government, say, or certain companies — won’t be bothered to snoop into their boring little lives, but that could change. As more sensors generate more data, the fear of coming under the “eye of Sauron” will likely increase, said Jay Stanley of the ACLU.
The worst case scenario, according to Stanley, is that people will come to fear “judgment by machines” and monitor their own behavior accordingly.
He added that the situation could become more gloomy yet in light of shaky protections. (Specifically, he pointed to the so-called “third party doctrine,” which eliminates Fourth Amendment privacy protections in the event that a person freely gives private records to someone else — perhaps by sharing the activities they perform at home with a connected appliance controlled by a third-party company).
So does privacy stand a chance? Can we realistically expect to gain privacy over the internet of things, when we seem unable to do so with the internet?
According to Richard Cornish, the head of IOT at XChanging, answers can be found by looking to places like Germany, which provide models of government working with industry to develop iterative regulations. One example he cited is a highway truck monitoring system that tracked drivers’ mileage, but did not also disclose their location.
Finally, the ACLU’s Stanley argued that we might be on the cusp of a new level of awareness, similar to what occurred with environmental concerns, which many people once dismissed.
“In 1972, ecology was just a fad. [Now], some companies are betting against privacy, that it will go away. That’s not a good bet,” he said, adding, “there’s a core amount of privacy that people will not give up.”
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Photo by Jakub Mosur