Samsung is introducing a refrigerator that can order your groceries. Google acquired Nest in 2014, the creator of smart thermostats. Some of our roads have sensors that detect and inform on traffic, as well as suggest alternative routes to drivers using GPS. 

These devices, all connected to the Internet, make up the world of consumer technologies called the Internet of Things (IoT). 

Who (or What) Is Watching You?

While there is no agreed upon definition for IoT yet, I like the one the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) presented in its January 2015 report. It identifies IoT as objects with devices or sensors — other than computers, smartphones or tablets — that connect, communicate or transmit information with or between each other through the Internet. 

Six years ago, the number of things connected to the Internet surpassed the number of people for the first time. Despite this massive shift, we are still at the beginning of this technology trend. 

According to Dave Evans of Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, as of this year, there will be 25 billion connected devices, and by 2020, there will be 50 billion. Many of us wear these devices, providing data with every step and breath we take. Health trackers, cars, appliances — these connected devices not only collect information, but also transmit, store and potentially share vast amounts of consumer data that may be very personal. 

These devices are collecting information about you constantly, whether you are aware or have provided consent. When your information is collected, however, who controls it? With whom is it shared? How is it stored and for how long?  How is it protected? What happens when our devices become proxies for public resources? 

With the growing asymmetry between those that are gathering and those that are the subjects, it will be critical to create new frameworks for accountability to ensure that privacy and ethical use of information can coexist.

Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

The benefits to these devices are fairly obvious and may be larger than we can even imagine today. Beyond predicting and avoiding traffic, the health implications for devices that can potentially prevent medical catastrophes for patients with heart conditions and other serious illnesses is profound. But at the same time, we have seen some interesting but potentially alarming trends in the use of data that need to be considered. 

First, personal health trackers are being used by third parties to achieve an end not originally intended by the person wearing them. Fitbit data, for example, has now been introduced into the courtroom as part of evidence. John Hancock is one the first US insurers to state that if a customer uses the company’s app to track their health data, the company will give a better rate on insurance. 

The data collected by IoT devices — ranging from your eating patterns collected by your smart refrigerator, when you are home and when you sleep collected from your thermostat, and where you go and what you do throughout the day collected by your phone, street cameras and the black box in your car — shows that you are no longer the most authoritative source of information on your life. 

As the FTC considers how it will regulate companies and enforce actions against overt misuses of highly sensitive data, consumers too may need to influence companies in making choices about the technology they purchase. The existing privacy frameworks around the world that are based primarily on “notice, consent and choice” will need to be rethought and reworked as unanticipated data usage and machine-to-machine communication become the norm.

String of Pearls

The information that we contribute to the vast array of data about ourselves become pearls that tell the story of our lives — all strung together and attached to us forever. These are ties that will bind us and be used not only by people we know, but by strangers. How will what you do today be perceived tomorrow, next month, or years from now by strangers, your employers, your family or the government? Can we self-regulate by choosing not to use a company’s technologies? If a company continues to circumvent its stated privacy policies or those of others, how will Congress act to establish further consequences?

So the next time you speak out loud in your car, in front of your television, or even at home, think to yourself, “What if this machine sitting passively in the room was recording my every word and sharing it with manufacturers or partners, selling the data or perhaps giving it to the government?” Where does our expectation of privacy begin and end? 

The future will be an adaption to living among the machines in our world, and ensuring we can stay as private as possible while still taking advantage of technological advances.