The in­ter­net of alarm­ing things

More and more data about what we get up to is likely to be sucked up as sen­sors that of­fer to help end up spy­ing on us.

New Zealand Listener - - PRIVACY -

The near fu­ture looks some­thing like this: you’re driv­ing home from work, and home knows you’re on your way. The home turns on the lights, bumps up the heat­ing, chooses the mu­sic you like and un­locks the front door. In the morn­ing, when you head back out to work, the home locks the door be­hind you, turns off the lights and di­als down the heat.

“The home knows where you are all the time,” says tech en­tre­pre­neur and com­men­ta­tor Vikram Ku­mar.

This is a glimpse of the In­ter­net of Things (IoT), the emerg­ing world of in­ter­con­nected data gath­ered by sen­sors in ev­ery­thing from cars to fridges and door locks, which will track what we do and when we do it.

It sounds like sci-fi, but Ku­mar says the self-ready­ing home is just three to five years away, and glimpses of this hy­per­con­nected fu­ture can al­ready be seen. Last year, for in­stance, Ama­zon launched a dig­i­tal as­sis­tant called the Echo. It looks sim­ple enough: a speaker-like de­vice that sits on the bench or cof­fee ta­ble, is con­trolled by voice and re­sponds to the name Alexa. The user can ask for a recipe, in­quire about the weather, have the lights turned on or off and call up a movie on the smart TV.

“But that as­sis­tant is lis­ten­ing all the time to try to fig­ure out what you want, and all that is sent off to the in­ter­net and hope­fully stored se­curely,” says Ku­mar. “But that’s where there are a lot of pri­vacy is­sues in terms of what data has been col­lected, and the fact that it’s in the home makes peo­ple ex­tremely ner­vous.”

But not nec­es­sar­ily ner­vous enough to stop us­ing it. “Ama­zon launched a sec­ond op­tion that doesn’t lis­ten all the time – you have to tap it to make it lis­ten. But 95% of peo­ple are still buy­ing the Echo. So yes, we have con­cerns, but do we act on them? Mostly not. Peo­ple of­ten favour con­ve­nience over pri­vacy and se­cu­rity.”

As US tech­nol­ogy com­men­ta­tor Ni­cholas Carr wrote re­cently, the IoT will see us tracked by our cars, clothes and ap­pli­ances, and the ma­chines and tools we use at work.

Even by our tooth­brushes. Ku­mar points to a “smart” tooth­brush de­vel­oped by Oral B, with an em­bed­ded sen­sor con­nected to a smart­phone app. Why bother? Well, out of that came a clever game to en­cour­age chil­dren to brush their teeth (nice) and a whole bunch of data that was use­ful to in­sur­ance com­pa­nies (slightly creepy).

“So one of the big­gest is­sues in all this is who owns the data,” says Ku­mar. What hap­pens if the com­pany that de­vel­oped the smart de­vice that col­lects all this per­sonal data goes broke? And are the users aware of what terms and con­di­tions they have signed up to?

“An­other as­pect is that the data pro­vided off these things is then com­bined with other data sets … and the net re­sult of be­ing mon­i­tored ev­ery time, ev­ery­where, with a huge amount of data be­ing col­lected is we get ‘big data’ on steroids … All the is­sues that we have with big data today are mag­ni­fied man­i­fold by [the IoT],” Ku­mar told a Pri­vacy Week con­fer­ence ear­lier this year.

It sounds alarm­ing, with wide-rang­ing pri­vacy is­sues. Yet Ku­mar be­lieves the IoT is “ba­si­cally a good thing”. There will be ef­fi­ciency ben­e­fits from such things as smart street and traf­fic lights, and sen­sors that track weather data and pro­vide just enough ir­ri­ga­tion to a pad­dock.

His com­pany, Ko­tahiNet, is build­ing a New Zealand-wide wire­less net­work to sup­port the IoT, and one of its projects in­volves work­ing with Wairarapa olive grow­ers to use sen­sors and an­a­lyt­ics to un­der­stand growth rates, work out when to spray and send out text no­ti­fi­ca­tions for frost and heavy rain. It is also work­ing on a smart smoke alarm that will send a text mes­sage to the owner when it is set off.

And imag­ine a smart car that is con­stantly gath­er­ing data on its own per­for­mance and ag­gre­gat­ing it for the me­chanic or sup­plier. In­stead of hav­ing to book the ve­hi­cle in for a rou­tine oil change, the car will tell you when the oil ac­tu­ally needs chang­ing.

On the other hand, your smart car might get hacked – and will all that data re­veal­ing where and when you drive be se­cure?

Like it or not, the IoT is com­ing, and it will be big. “There’s a lot of hype. Talk to any an­a­lyst and you have bil­lions and tril­lions [of sen­sors] be­ing thrown around,” says Ku­mar. “My view is it’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be much big­ger than even some of the hype we have been lis­ten­ing to, but in the long term. Tech­nol­ogy tends to un­der-de­liver in the short term, but it gets un­der­es­ti­mated in the long term.” – Re­becca Mac­fie

Vikram Ku­mar: “Peo­ple of­ten favour con­ve­nience over pri­vacy and


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