Security and privacy are two of the biggest obstacles to enterprise adoption of IoT technology. They are the two topics I am most frequently asked about by customers, and there’s no question that the concerns are real. Botnets, digital invasions, even the use of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) to commit remote sabotage are all in today’s headlines.
Even the consumer products space isn’t immune to threats to security and privacy. Take, for example, the story about how a hacker was able to backdoor a connected baby monitor and talk to the child of parents who may not have considered the risk of leaving digital doors unlocked. As our world becomes more connected and more digital, so do we. Rightfully, we should take precautions to protect ourselves and our families.
While the risk of malicious hackers grabs our attention, privacy seems to take a backseat to security. I’m not sure this is safe or smart. No firewall can protect us from outcomes related to information we willingly share directly through social media and indirectly through digital tracking and profiling. For a chilling wake-up call, check out your digital journey on Google. They may already know more about you than you do.
Close to the Edge Without Going Over
I remember my own early experience with the internet, from the walled garden of AOL to the Wild West of the internet enabled by Netscape Navigator. I also remember quickly becoming hyper-concerned with privacy. Disabling cookies would keep me anonymous, I was sure of it. But as my engagement with the web became more intimate—moving past e-libraries and into e-commerce (my first eBay purchase in the late 1990s, my first e-trade around the same time), then into social and digital media—I noticed my web experience was degraded by my personal goals for privacy.
I still saw ads, but they were irrelevant to me. Websites where I held accounts only stored some minimal information about me. Eventually, it became clear that having my browser save more detailed information like my browsing history, my interests, cross-platform data captured from interactions on my other newly web-enabled devices like my cellphone could provide me a more custom and relevant web experience. I saw enough opportunity and value in the enhanced experience of a personalized internet that I traded some anonymity for convenience. And if I’m being honest, I don’t really regret it.
Fast forward to today. My internet interface goes beyond my desktop computers and mobile devices and extends into my home, my office, my car, my LIFE. I talk to the internet through my Amazon Echo to order products that her creators recommended to me through targeted, if not fully personalized ads in my Facebook feed. I even ask her to play music from my iTunes library, which through my family account is connected to and installed on my devices and many of the devices used by my kids. My goal is to monitor the content they are accessing, but am I the only one “virtually” looking over their shoulder?
Catching Imagination with New Magic
As I see more and more of my world going digital—my doorbell, door locks, refrigerator, the electrical system in my house—I wonder what new services I’ll be presented with that will make me feel good about trading even more of my personal information and anonymity. Make no mistake about it, with the promise of 5G, along with the improvements and reduction of costs in embedded processors and networking technology, we aren’t far from a future where EVERYTHING with a battery or a power cord is connected to the internet.
We’ll be offered value-added services for all of our electronics (think automatic replenishment of consumables, self-healing software, even predictive maintenance services), guaranteeing us performance, availability, and security of our precious possessions as a trade for some of our network bandwidth and a checkmark in a digital agreement we can’t wait to get past. And it won’t be long before we’re allowing more intimate associations like connecting our homes, offices, and cars to our social media and other online identities. We’ll strive to give ourselves a seamless internet experience but may end up providing corporations with an even more detailed picture of what we do and who we are.
Wards of the Machines
We’re only beginning to explore what this all means to our communities and our culture. All of this data on human behavior can be used to help. For example, imagine a day when subtle deviations from our own regular routines can be used to detect early indicators of mental illness or dementia. But like the rest of our digital footprint, it's also likely to be used to better market more products and more services to us.
I heard several years ago that the IoT was totally changing the way companies approach product warranties. In the old days, companies would package up a postcard with every purchase and required that you return it with key personal details to receive future under-warranty repairs.
This information would get keyed into a database, was sometimes sold to third parties, and was often used to phone or mail-survey the customer to capture more information about their sentiment and use of the product. This was the old way: always asking the consumer about the product.
Today’s IoT-enabled consumer products flip this on its head. The product is not only connected to our lives but is linked back to corporate headquarters, allowing companies to ask it any questions about its performance, our use of it, or even what it observes about us, our behavior, our “selves.” This is the new way: always asking the product about the consumer. As we truly welcome these transformational products and services into our lives, we need to keep a close eye on if we, or at least our digital twins, are actually becoming the product. A more critical question may be whether we’re OK with that or not.