Take a look around you now, how many devices are connected to the Internet? For starters there is the one you're reading this article on, be it a laptop, phone, or tablet computer. But what about the other electrical appliances around your home, such as your oven or your washing machine? This may seem like a strange question, but connecting your kitchen appliances to the web is in the very near future for many of us, courtesy of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Whilst the curiously titled Internet of Things may sound like an abstract sci-fi fantasy, it looks set to revolutionise the way we use everyday objects by hooking them up to the internet, but early indications are that this has worrying implications for our online privacy.
In the same vein as 'smart' phones, the Internet of Things will connect more and more household devices to the web, allowing countless innovations to everyday items. If a device requires electricity, chances are it will be Internet compatible in the near future (think intuitive smart fridges for example). By the year 2020, it is estimated that between 30-200 billion devices will be web compatible. The stats vary, but what is clear is that in the coming decades, the Internet will come to play an even more integral role in our daily lives.
The main worry I have with regards to IoT is that by connecting more and more household devices to the web, we will be providing even more personal information for hackers, corporations, and governments to monitor. Let's take the 'smart fridge' as an example. Smart refrigerators, which are already available for purchase, inform users when a certain foodstuff is running low, and can even be programmed to order more when this happens. Whilst undoubtedly very convenient, this raises a number of privacy concerns. It's fair to assume that such a device will collect data on the user's eating habits, but who owns the rights to that data? The consumer? The Internet service provider? The fridge manufacturer? At this moment in time, nobody can really say.
Much has been said in the online privacy debate, particularly in regards to big tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. As is well documented, these companies allow users free access to their services at great cost to their privacy, and the connectivity of household appliances to the Internet will exacerbate this issue even further. Data collected by smart refrigerators will certainly be coveted by food corporations, who are suitably financially equipped to get their hands on it. If they know what's in your fridge, they know what kind of things you'll want to buy, and will be able to fine tune their targeted advertising even further. A world where all our appliances are hooked up to the web, and the data collected by them is bought by corporations brings up some worrying possibilities.
A fridge regularly stocked with fruit juices could lead to the owner receiving ads from Innocent Drinks. Homeowners that use their ovens infrequently could receive ads from companies such as Domino's. If a homeowner neglects to wash their clothes for a certain period of time, they could receive ads from housekeeping services. So, as exciting as the Internet of Things is, it will give advertisers more information about us than ever before, something that is already a controversial phenomenon.
Another aspect of this controversy is perhaps even more worrying; the issue of government surveillance. Since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of US government surveillance on ordinary people across the world, the complete lack of privacy online has been brought to the forefront of our consciousness. Governments already know unprecedented amounts about our personal lives thanks to our Facebook accounts, our Google searches, and our usage of other web services. If they were able to access data from every electronic device in our houses, there's very little at all that they won't know about our lives.
Whilst it appears that the Internet of Things is likely to revolutionise our daily lives, this comes at a cost. By connecting almost every household item to the web, our privacy is certainly at risk. As previously mentioned, the ownership of IP of data collected by 'smart' appliances is uncertain, but it seems quite unlikely that it will be owned by consumers. The fact that social networks and other tech firms already collect our personal data en masse and sell it on to third parties means that very little is sacred. If IoT hits the lofty heights projected by commentators, and corporations can access the data it collects, almost nothing will be sacred.
Wayne Beynon is a Media and IP lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law www.capitallaw.co.uk