IoT Privacy: Engineering Fault, Not User Issue

When it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), individual privacy is at the top of the agenda for both consumers and the wider media. For engineers and product developers, however, it is rarely seen as the number one concern.

For the most part, this may be due to the wide variety of issues that engineers already have to consider when producing their own Internet-connected devices. Between the development of IoT standards, the selection of wireless technologies, and the adoption of an appropriate Internet Protocol, most engineers are still wrapped up in the basic infrastructure of IoT. As a result, more abstract ideas such as personal privacy can quickly fall by the wayside.

It can be all too easy for design engineers to consider privacy as an afterthought. But the truth is that if designers want the Internet of Things to succeed and become widely adopted, they need to start building privacy considerations into designs from the ground up. Waiting for legislators to impose demands from above is only going to slow this down.

The media hype promoting the virtues of IoT to consumers is fast dissipating to make way for an increasing focus on how technology is storing, using and securing private information. Recently, element14's own research has shown that as many as 64% of consumers are concerned with how wearable technology will impact their privacy.

Whether these concerns are justified or not, it is hard to deny the Internet of Things is fundamentally changing the way technology collects and uses our personal information. By seamlessly embedding billions of sensors and connected devices into everyday life, the amount of data being stored is inevitably going to increase.

This represents a significant privacy concern for a number of reasons.

Problems of privacy in the IoT age

First, as the quantity of data increases, the harder it becomes to control. Monitoring and securing one point of data collection may be easy enough, but as the Internet of Things expands to include 20 billion interconnected devices, data security becomes a far more complex issue. While there are already multiple security standards currently being developed to address this concern, it is the designers and engineers that will need to find a way to implement these standards without damaging the end-user experience.

Second, in order to maximize the long-term usefulness of the Internet of Things, multiple devices will need to communicate with one another, regardless of ownership. As one example, a connected car might need to link with an individual's mobile phone or smartwatch. At the same time however, it may also need to connect with other cars on the road in order to gather relevant traffic information. With information being borrowed from different individuals and sources, the idea that any one individual 'owns' their data becomes increasingly difficult to impose.

Once again, this presents another challenge for engineers and product designers to overcome. While the collection of data is vital for the Internet of Things to function, designers need to ensure their products and services do not harvest any more data than is required to carry out a particular task. At the same time, this data needs to be stored securely and should never be shared without the express permission of the original owner.

As these examples make clear, personal privacy has increasingly become a 'design' issue. And yet, the problems surrounding privacy are still largely being framed from the perspective of the consumer, with the onus being placed on the user to 'protect' their own data.

This focus may be due to the fact that most technologies that collect user data have previously only existed online (search engines, social media, etc.). These tools exist in an abstract form, outside of the physical world. As a result, many of the traditional ways to protect personal privacy no longer seem to apply. In the instance of social media, most online services request personal information as part of their core function. In these instances, it is all too easy to 'pass the buck' onto the consumer, suggesting that if privacy really meant that much to them, they wouldn't be uploading personal information to social networking sites.

The Internet of Things is shifting this debate back into the physical realm. By helping to make privacy a more tangible issue, IoT technologies are increasingly colliding with the social norms of the 'offline' world.

Consider the wearable technology project, Google Glass. While the concept of search engines retaining user data seemed too abstract to directly offend, the idea of wearing a video camera suddenly provided a tangible dimension that brought the issue of privacy to life. Now, following an initial trial period, Google Glass has been banned in cars, cinemas, banks, casinos, hospitals and restaurants around the world. This backlash represents a very real issue, and one that IoT designers need to be conscious of and actively address.

With privacy back on the agenda in a very real and tangible way, the onus on data protection is shifting away from consumers and back to the products themselves. Electronics OEMs then, need to put these issues at the top of the product design agenda.

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