As the Internet of Things Grows, Is Privacy Possible?

The Internet of Things will instrument our world and, in doing so, simplify many aspects of our lives. Yet, the flip-side of gaining so much data about our physical world is the risk of being able to correlate events and data-points in a way that harms consumer privacy.
By Dominique Guinard
Jan 15, 2015

The Internet of Things will give us extraordinary insights into the mechanics of our world, our environment, our infrastructures and even ourselves. But companies that fail to acknowledge, mishandle or ignore these three privacy issues are undermining the future of the IoT.

Challenge #1: The Balance Between Features and Privacy

At the core of the Internet of Things is data. The more data a given IoT system obtains from its end users, the more value the system produces for application development, improved customer experiences and increased operational efficiency. But the secret to the IoT's success will be in striking the right balance between the limitless amount of personalized data from connected devices (between the end users and their personal products, and between multiple, inter-connected devices) and the preservation of privacy.

Remember that just a few pieces of data from different sources can digitally "fingerprint" individual consumers. For example, a 2013 study on mobiles showed that, based on tracking our distance from mobile antennas every hour, four points in a dataset were enough to recognize 95 percent of individuals using the system. Today, both Google Now and Apple's iBeacons use unique user identities and location to provide seamless services that feel like magic.

The problem is that personalization via consumer-generated data and profiles is key for the IoT to truly take off in consumer-facing applications. To accelerate progress, we need IoT systems that not only manage and protect this data, but also glean powerful insights on individual identities based on just a few data points. The key will be to ensure that consumers have control over what information is shared, and how, and that they can share it with whoever they feel will give them a positive cost-benefit balance.

Challenge #2: Granular Data Sharing
The true value of the IoT comes from sharing data between systems (for example, cross-referencing information across devices and applications rather than looking at "one device, one protocol, one application" use cases). But this can significantly amplify privacy issues if it's not managed properly.

I recently purchased a Jawbone activity tracker that could sync my Withings smart bathroom scales so I could gain a more holistic view of my fitness status and receive better training advice. However, there was no way for me to set up or restrict my data permissions—I had to share all of my personal data between products or none at all.

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