Data, Privacy And The IoT

Just because there are no laws protecting the privacy of most data doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use it.

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The keynotes at this year’s Design Automation Conference concentrated on the Internet of Things (IoT). All of the speakers came from a hardware background, and thus all saw the benefits of being close to the system that is generating the data, providing the analytics, and producing some kind of action that provides the economic benefit.

The alternative view comes from the top — providers of the cloud, the infrastructure and the companies driving a lot of the largest neural network development programs. These companies are hungry for data. Lots of data. Without data they will not be able to successfully train their networks, and the infrastructure companies love providing huge amounts of processing power and backbone to move all of the data around. They believe the money is to be made at the top.

But as with many things, the two extremes are not the most likely outcome. The problem is that no system can rely on a connection to the Internet in order to function properly. This is particularly true if the services provided are anything more than pure entertainment (and even that may be debatable). In the event of an emergency, the local system has to be able to provide a minimum level of services.

Over time, that minimum level of services becomes a greater challenge. One of the arguments made for smart lighting is that it means less wiring has to be put in buildings. Now you only have to run power and not bother about switch boxes. When regulation catches up, it probably will mandate that every person must have the ability to control lighting, which opens up a bunch of security issues. It is one thing to have an employee running around turning lights on and off at the switch plates. It’s quite another to give anyone the ability to turn on or off all of the lights in a building.

At the heart of the economic model for the IoT is data. It was made quite clear that for industrial applications, such as smart offices, heavy equipment and the like, that the data will be closely held by the companies providing the local platforms. This is their bread and butter and the way in which they monetize the value of the system over time. Give away the data and they have given away the keys to the kingdom. We shall see if they do indeed manage to keep hold of it in the future.

But the consumer market is very different. Users appear to be very happy to give away all kinds of data in order to get the services they desire. They hardly ever stop to think about the implications of what they are giving away, or what may be done with that data. In addition, user data has now been hacked so many times that it almost has become public knowledge.

You only have to look at the number of people who take “quizzes” on Facebook, most of which require you to open up your contact list, or reveal some personal data, to see how cheaply most users are willing to provide that information. Product feedback and in many cases support has been transferred to users who do it for free.

It is only once they see the results of having shared data that they start to take offense, and at that point there is nothing they can do to take it back. So it makes sense that the top-down companies will continue to target them as giant data gatherers because they hardly have to pay for the data and they can then use the information to directly sell products or services back to them.

Data is the key to the future, and there are little to no regulations in place to control what companies can and cannot do with that data. Europe is ahead of the U.S. in this area, but they are having difficulties defining what is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Even the right to forget does not go far enough. If data has been used to train a neural network, how do you back that out?

It is time to start defining what personal privacy means and to return to users the ability to control access to data about themselves. When we close the shades on our windows, we have a reasonable expectation of privacy. We need shades for our digital lives as well. While a bunch of data has already been lost, the age of tracking everything we do, say or perhaps in the future think, is still opening up.

I, for one, am not happy with the way large corporations treat me and the data about me. Just because data can be collected—or because there are no laws which forbid its collections—doesn’t make it right or ethical. Companies have to respect my reasonable right to privacy, just like there are laws against Peeping Toms.