The Internet of Things: Do Customers Have a Say in Who Owns Their Data?There’s a lot of money being made these days by people professing to be experts in big data and the interconnected concept of the Internet of Things. Business leaders who have been converted into disciples of data and analysis eagerly imagine the possibilities of a thoroughly interconnected world in which individual customers’ behaviors can be determined and even predicted by data delivered direct from their devices -- ranging from their computers to their home appliances.

This avalanche of data -- big data, to use the overworked term -- then requires carefully-crafted analytical strategies to yield useful information. Analytics vendors are lining up to feed what IDC says will be a market growing at a compounded annual rate of 9.7 percent through 2017.

The Creepy Factor

The allure of a world of data-generating devices and customers even bled into Dreamforce 2013, where Marc Benioff’s keynote focused on something he called the “Internet of Customers.” But the very example he used in his keynote exposed the potentially fatal flaw with Internet of Things thinking: in a great many cases, customers don’t really want their devices feeding data about them to outside entities.

Benioff told a story about his toothbrush. He started by talking about how much he enjoyed brushing his teeth, then related the story of his most recent electric toothbrush, which captures data about how well and how often he brushes and transmits it to his dentist. The dentist can use the data to evaluate how well patients are brushing and arm him with information for their next check-ups.

Although I practice good dental hygiene, and don’t hate going to the dentist, I don’t relish the obligatory twice-yearly lecture about flossing. The last thing I want to do is have the dentist shaming me about brushing, too. So the idea of an electric toothbrushes that essentially snitches on its users is a little creepy.

The idea of your appliances monitoring data about you is a little weird, too. The idea that a refrigerator could be equipped with monitors to help it autonomously determine when it needs service make sense. However, to marketers, it also makes sense to track how often a fridge’s door is opened, for instance, and to make inferences about user behaviors based on this data.

The Importance of Opt-In

This is the problem with the idea of the Internet of Things: a lot of the data our “things” can collect is about people, and people don’t always want to divulge their information, especially when it's going to be used to market to them. Today, there are frequently voiced reservations about privacy around information shared on social media; these, I predict, will be dwarfed by reservations about the information customers will share passively through their devices in the future.