Internet of Things has potential but raises security, privacy issues

Watch the video above: An introduction to the internet of things. Sean Mallen reports. 

TORONTO – There are some who call the “internet of things” the next industrial revolution.  But it raises important legal and ethical questions that experts say will have to be answered.

The label is used to describe a world similar to the Jetsons where devices and appliances silently watch you and speak to each other to – it would seem – make your life easier.

As Victor Woo, general manager of the internet of things for Cisco Canada, explains as an example, the connected devices also have the potential to help you modify your exercise regimen based on on-going monitoring.

“Wearing a Fitband or perhaps a shirt that monitors my heartbeat or my blood pressure – I can tie that in to my personal regiment for exercising or tie it into a medical record in terms of my physician’s prescribed physical activity in terms of how I want to work out,” he said in an interview. “But all that’s networked together and we get the combination of devices with information with prescriptive behaviour, and it allows us to transform us in how we exercise, as an example.”

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READ MORE: The promise and peril of a connected world

Cisco Canada estimates that by 2020 there will be close to 50 billion devices connected to the internet.

“The amount of information that will be generated will be 50-fold in terms of our digital universe,” Woo said. “We’re estimating approximately 40 zettabytes of information.”

That’s a lot of information.

“If you want to break it down to a person it’s about 5,000 gigabytes per person if I want to spread it out throughout the entire globe,” he said.

And Stephen Lake, Co-Founder and CEO of Thalmic Labs in Kitchener, is among the developers trying to add to that information. He’s helped create a ‘gesture controlled interface’ that can interact with smartphones, video games or can be used by architects and engineers for 3d modelling. The wearable technology fits on your forearm and, according to Lake, brokers communication between the internet and your muscles.

“You have all these new devices you need to talk to and control. How do you interact with them? So we’ve seen developers build this in through, for example, home automation,” he said. “They control their lights, their blinds, their TV, their smart TV setup, whatever it may be, all from this.”

Though the “internet of things” is still a relatively new industry, Lake, as a developer still thinks there are a host of question that will have to be answered.

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“We see everything nowadays becoming connected and the interesting question now is we have kind of the first layer, which is all these devices that are outputting data or sending these data points, but now the next question is what do we do with that? How do we interact with it? How do we make those little data points useful, right?”

READ MORE: What is the internet of things? 

And what can that information be used for? Woo suggests it could help companies market their goods, not by demographic information but by using your own habits.

“So it’s trying new experiences for retailers so they can attach customer loyalty and drive more sales, for manufacturers it’s improving R&D, reducing cost of sales and getting product out,” he said. “It’s a way for retailers to transform how they capture customer loyalty through targeted advertising.”

He added it would be an opt-in service for customers. Rather than companies having automatic access to your data, the user would be asked to provide it voluntarily.

Watch: The Internet of Things raises security, privacy issues. Sean Mallen reports

Privacy and Security

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But the prevalence of connected devices and flowing data also raises ethical and legal questions.

“This is one where again the technology runs ahead and then law and regulation have to play catch up,” technology lawyer George Takach said in an interview. “In some areas we’re not badly positioned but in some areas we’re just thinking about what might be the consequences.”

Ontario is taking steps to resolve some of the grey areas however, Takach said. Recently Ontario courts ruled that information flowing between connected automobiles and insurance companies is private data belonging to the driver.

One area where this is happening is “telematics.” Connected cars will automatically track your driving habits, including how fast you drive, the immediacy of your stops, the pace of turns and a host of other driving habits.

But what if there’s a car accident and police want access to the data? Takach thinks courts will be forced to rule on that after the fact.

“Let’s say you’re in an accident and now the police get access to that same data to try to determine how your general driving behaviour was, and that will be the big high profile case where a lot of people will finally wake up and say, ‘Oh my goodness, so this means that that data’s available beyond the insurance company,’” he said.

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Not only will courts likely have to rule on what is and what’s not private data but also whether that data, when automatically flowing between devices, can be sold, Takach said.

The obvious place for those concerns to be settled will be in contracts, he said, but suggested it will force people to do something most don’t; read the fine print.

“The bottom line will be a lot of this will be handled in the contract that the insurance company has with you or the car company has with you or the service provider has with you,” he said. “One takeaway thought is people who buy cars now will really have to read those contracts to understand their rights.”

But as devices are increasingly connected, does the image of SkyNet – the self-aware computer antagonist in the Terminator movie series – or the crux of Live Free or Die Hard – where a hacker brings down the United States transportation grid from a laptop – become a real fear?

“We have to be very concerned about hardening our Internet infrastructure generally, redundancy, back-up systems.  Similarly with our electrical systems and the grid, we all lived through that big power outage a number of years ago. It’s the same with the Internet,” Takach said. “We’re now so reliant on it that we need to make sure that if one part fails, the Internet can go around it.”

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With files from Sean Mallen

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