The IoT Challenge Protecting Privacy in a Connected World

The IoT Challenge: Protecting Privacy in a Connected World

4 minute read
Dana Blouin avatar

Just thinking about the Internet of Things (IoT) can make your head spin. Through sensors and pervasive connectivity, we open ourselves to a wide range of ideas that can improve our daily activities and add a much richer context to just about everything we do … if we let them.

Privacy, without a doubt, is the biggest area of concern about the IoT.

It's not uncommon to hear terms like Big Brother or 1984 pop up in conversation when the topic comes up, and, in many respects, that is understandable. Many people are naturally spooked by the idea of technology that can track where we go, what we buy, what we eat and how much we move around. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Add some data analytics into the mix and start talking predictive modeling and the potential of the IoT opens the door to the plot of a high tech horror movie.

Endless Data

As we interact with sensors and use them to provide feedback as well as to add new context to our everyday lives, we provide these connected devices and the applications that drive them with extensive information about our habits, our routines and ourselves.

This treasure trove of personal data is a mixed blessing. While it has clear value to marketers and companies looking to derive meaning and context from it, the data could also be extremely damaging if it were compromised and linked back to the source.

Given the sensitive nature of the data we generate whenever we interact with IoT devices, it's easy to understand the privacy concerns. In fact, it's likely that privacy will continue to be a discussion point for the IoT for a long time to come — at least until the issue is definitively discussed, understood and dealt with.

The only way to ensure that this happens is to incorporate privacy into the foundation of everything the Internet of Things represents.

Creating a Solid Foundation

If privacy is part of the concept and design of all of the things connected to the IoT, then we have the potential to mitigate many of the concerns about the cornucopia of data that flows from it.

The first step in addressing the privacy of the data is determining who owns it. The only way to ensure total privacy of the data would require allowing the person who creates it to retain full ownership of it.

Under that scenario, the data owner would be required to provide explicit permission to share it, thereby restricting third-party access.

Defining ownership from the start becomes more important as sensors and connected devices begin to integrate more deeply in our daily lives.

As we move about and interact with various sensors and devices — at home and work, in our cars and in the businesses we patronize, and especially with the devices we wear or carry — we leave a trail of data that can be linked directly to us and used collectively to derive much deeper insight that that generated by any single device.

Learning Opportunities

Giving ownership of this data to the individual who created it allows him to control its access and use.

Anonymous Data

The next step in ensuring privacy for the data generated by the Internet of Things is establishing methods for data anonymity.

Instituting standards that will help prevent data from a device or sensor from being directly linked back to the individual who created it will go a long way to ensure privacy is provided to the end user. It will also go along way to bolster security because it will make it far more difficult to link any one piece of data back to a specific user.

Looking Ahead

As the IoT continues to grow as an exponential rate and devices become more ubiquitous, privacy concerns will also continue to grow.

Establishing standards for privacy with regards to IoT devices, applications and services now will help minimize the potential risks from data loss, security breaches and other questionable uses.

Defining ownership gives users control over the data they create and establishes a framework for anonymity that helps distance users from their personal data and the things it might reveal about them.

The IoT is mind-blowing — and its potential will be even more amazing if we find ways to extract value from the data it generates while simultaneously ensuring the privacy of all users.

Title image by Richard P J Lambert  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

About the author

Dana Blouin

Dana Blouin is a Ph.D candidate and researcher at SIIT—Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, where he is conducting research in the areas of the Internet of Things, wireless sensor networks and ubiquitous networking.

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