Internet of Things Part 1: Big Data. Big Brother. Big Issues.

This is the beginning of the series on the Top 10 areas to probe when considering the Internet of Things. 

What are the key ethical considerations and political considerations regarding the Internet of Things? 

This week it came out that the US government has been operating alongside nine very large and important companies (that we know of) in the world of online and mobile communications to track information about email and phone calls and other online activities. This subject brings back a raft of controversy surrounding the USA PATRIOT Act, and the subsequent warrantless wiretapping and evasion of the FISA court provisions. More than that, though, it calls into question the very nature of how each of us interacts with others and how much information about our private lives is exposed. I am not here with answers, but rather a growing list of questions. Here are the ones that immediately come to mind:

Just how much data and what specific data is being collected? While I am sure some people know this answer, I am not one of them. I do know the most basic answer is “a lot.” Nothing in the recent reports suggest anything other than that the most aggressive views of what has been collected is probably less than what is actually being done. We know there are phone records: who you called, who called you, from where, when, for how long. It probably includes things like what type of handset you use, where you were during the call, where they were during the call, the carriers used, and more. This data probably then contributes to further analysis about the frequency of your calls with particular people, others who interact with the same people, where they are, etc. The data in itself is the fuel.

Why is the government doing this? The value is in the analysis of the data, which is really the stated goal anyway. Having data about what happened in the past is one thing. Using that data to determine what will happen in the future—unless some intervention takes place—is another. While one can question the sincerity of what is being communicated, it is quite plausible that information being gathered about phone calls, internet usage, emails, and file transfers can be used to detect patterns of behavior and predict future behavior. So to the extent that the NSA (or any agency or organization attempting to provide security or defense) can detect threats, they are able to provide greater security and protection.

Will The Internet of Things make the world safer or less safe? It is easy to conclude both. Again, the NSA, the CIA, and similar organizations around the world can make a case for making the world a safer place by understanding this information. If you are in the business of protecting anyone or anything, the more you know about potential threats, the better job you can do against them. That said, the world being more or less safe is really a function of who is gaining this information and what their motivation is. To say “knowledge is power” certainly applies in all directions. If a government, a company, or some other non-state-sponsored group decides they want to do harm and understands how to gain considerably more information and analyze that information, then aren’t we less safe as a result? It would be hard to argue otherwise. This conclusion points out the imperative of safeguarding data. Furthermore, this discussion concerns phone records, emails, and file transfers—which are, arguably, a small subset of the scope of data which will be generated going forward with the Internet of Things.  So, take the pontenial threat and magnify it…significantly.

Who else is doing this? Absent from the discussion regarding these NSA revelations is the question of who else might be collecting and analyzing this type of data. Why would one assume it is only the US government doing this? Or just governments, for that matter. The mega-players, ranging from the large mobile network operators to Facebook, Google, Apple, and others, all clearly can amass huge amounts of this type of data. And I think most people would be surprised by the amount of browsing and other online or mobile data that be collected by almost anyone. Look at the hundreds of companies in the adtech space that are doing online advertising, mobile advertising, online auctions, brand management, and a variety of other use cases consuming this data. Most are clearly motivated by the desire to make money rather than by a desire to inflict harm or invade privacy. Yet, the data is the data. In some countries, it is governed more strictly than in others; but accessing and analyzing this type of data is hardly the exclusive domain of the NSA.

What data can and might be collected in the future, and what are the tradeoffs associated with this data? This is where it gets really, really interesting. If you are spooked by call data records, then what about your energy usage, or your driving and walking habits, or your buying habits, eating habits, whatever? One of the things that is cool about the Internet of Things is that the world can become somewhat tailored and much more efficient to you as an individual, because the data can be understood and interpreted in the context of what makes your life better— from energy management to transportation to shopping and more. But in order for this to work, the data has to be there.  And in the hands of the wrong people or organizations, it can certainly pose an increasingly large problem.

Will the Internet of Things allow markets to flourish, and in turn, people to flourish? Or will it allow the concentration of power and resources at the expense of many? There are many ethical and geopolitical issues associated with natural resource utilization and, I imagine in many ways data will be viewed as almost another natural resource. So controlling this data will be somewhat akin to controlling oil reserves or farmland or water access. The internet is filled with debates and examples regarding the disenfranching of people from their land and their rights to the land’s riches. It is quite plausible that control of data will be viewed in a similar light. Will this fall to the more powerful governments? Will this be the domain of the mega-corporations?  I am already beginning to find myself in conversations where the notion of the democratization of data is coming up. There will likely be much debate around how data is accessible, and by whom, and for what purposes. It has been said that “data is the new oil.” I think that has a great deal of truth to it. And as with oil, there will be posturing, strong-arming, and certain power struggles around how data is controlled, utilized, and who the main beneficiaries will be over time.

Will it enhance the quality of life for all people, or a fraction of the population? This is the next obvious question following the discussion above. One could ask if all mankind benefits from more efficient energy delivery, or if all people enjoy longer lives due to increased mobile health capabilities. Will the average person gain back quality time due to more efficient traffic grids and smart cars? They should. But then again, many would argue that the poverty rates and the number of indigent people should not be near what they are in some of the wealthiest countries in the world. So, how the benefits of The Internet of Things are realized will be interesting to watch unfold. I can only hope that those beneficiaries run far and wide. In fact, in some ways, those who benefit the most could well be those in the world who have the least now. As energy delivery, healthcare delivery, food production all get better, one could argue that this should lead to a better world.

I hope it does. And I sincerely hope that we can play a small part in making that a reality.

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Read the next blog in the Internet of Things Blog Series: The Internet of (money) Things

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