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A Privacy Aspect to The Internet of Things

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Internet of Things
  3. The social aspect
    The privacy aspect
  4. Conclusion


The divide between our online- and physical social lives is shrinking by the day, the impact of online communications on our social lives is more profound than ever. Today social media sites like Facebook influence a large portion of our social life and with the newest numbers suggesting that just Facebook has up to 2 billion monthly active users and Twitter more than 320 million monthly active users, it is easy to understand why sites like these have a large influence on people’s lives. While social media and technology have affected our lives for sometime now, there is a new player on the block, most often referred to as the Internet of Things or IoT, one description of IoT is “networked interconnection of everyday objects, which are often equipped with ubiquitous intelligence.” This new “technology ecosystem” is estimated to be worth trillions by the middle of the next decade with a substantial portion linked to domestic application. With this new ecosystem of objects entering businesses, people’s social lives and their homes, the topic of security and privacy arises. In his book, Abusing the Internet of Things, Nitesh Dhanjani showed how large and well known manufacturers of electronics devices, categorized as IoT devices, had neglected to properly secure their devices from being exploited by external parties in multiple ways. In this essay, we will start by describing the Internet of Things, its market, vision, requirements, and related technologies. Next we will describe the related social aspects and finally the topic of privacy in relation to the Internet of Things and how aspects of privacy need to develop to adequately encase and enable the development and adoption of the Internet of Things.

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Internet of Things

The term Internet of Things as we know it today, most likely came into existence at the end of the 20th century when it was presented in relation to Procter & Gamble’s supply chain, by connecting RFID technology to the internet. Even though that the term has changed quite a bit since then to include much more than just the RFID technology of that time, the basic idea of its purpose or goal has stayed the same, “making a computer sense information without the aid of human intervention”. Most of us know what the word “internet” stands for, “A global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols”, but what does the word “things” in the Internet of Things stand for?

The Cluster of European Research Projects or CERP, defines “Things” in the Internet of Things as some things that “are expected to become active participants in business, information and social processes where they are enabled to interact and communicate among themselves and with the environment by exchanging data and information “sensed” about the environment, while reacting autonomously to the “real/physical world” events and influencing it by running processes that trigger actions and create services with or without direct human intervention”. In more basic terms, the Internet of Things, is an interconnected group of things, all kinds of devices, that are able to sense and react to their environment and exchange data and information through the internet, with- or without the help of humans. In today’s Internet of Things, there are multiple types of technologies which support the devices that fall into the definition of the “Things” in the Internet of Things, for example: Wireless Communication, RFID technology, sensor technology, location technology, software, and more. By integrating one or more of these technologies into everyday devices they become the “Thing” in the Internet of Things and are able to capture, create, and share data and information autonomously or with the help of humans. The Internet of Things offers a noteworthy opportunity to skip many of the4obstacles of capturing and inputting data by cutting out the human factor in the input process, which has been known to input data wrongly or subjectively and “enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world – without the limitations of human-entered data.”

Internet of Things is often associated to ubiquitous computing and cloud computing. Ubiquitous computing is the vision of “nonintrusive availability of computers throughout the physical environment, virtually, if not effectively, invisible to the user”. Cloud computing is computing on the World Wide Web, where a user can access its services anywhere while connected to the internet. The internet, has before been the largest milestone in reaching the vision of ubiquitous computing, the future vision of the Internet of Things and ubiquitous computing demands for more processing power being available and by that, integration with cloud computing, a so called Cloud of Things, which will further support the development of the Internet of Things and move us closer to an ubiquitous web, a so called web 3.0.

The term “Internet of Things” and everything that it stands for is new but its growth is expected to be rapid and large. The market is already substantial, with an estimated worth of $485 million in 2013, growing larger every year and estimated to be worth up to $11.1 trillion by 2025 with up to 70% linked to industrial application, that still leaves 30% or more for domestic application, which is a substantial amount from any angle. This is visible in the number of large companies which have invested in creating IoT enabled devices, like: Smart TVs and wireless sensors from Samsung, wireless light bulbs from Philips, connected electric cars from Tesla, electronics locks from Kevo, and thousands more from companies like Google, Fujitsu, IBM, Qualcomm, and Siemens, and with the constant introduction of new IoT enabled devices. The future vision of a world filled with IoT enabled devices is exciting for most people, and perhaps this new technology will be able to change the world.

The broad possibilities of the Internet of Things enables for a vision of a world filled with a diverse range of devices, seamlessly integrated into the environment of businesses and people, bringing multiple benefits for all stakeholders. This vision, of a network of objects does not only connect objects to other objects but it also creates a social network that connects objects to humans by making information from the objects available and noticeable to humans, by that becoming part of people’s social life but also the socio-economic environment of businesses. Uckelmann, Harrison, and Michahelles describe the key requirements for a successful vision and adoption of the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things cannot be owned or controlled by a single person or group, it needs to include security, privacy, and trustworthiness. Its infrastructure needs to be universal and open to bridge the gap between business-to-business (B2B), business to-customer (B2C), and machine-to-machine (M2M). The design of the infrastructure needs to be open, scalable, flexible, and sustainable to accompany its size, functionality, dynamism, and need for investment. New developments and technologies must be easily migratable into the current infrastructure. Participation needs to be exciting and beneficial, the business case needs to be clear for businesses and new business cases need to be developed. New market entrants need to be encouraged to join the Internet of Things. Costs, benefits, and revenues need to be easily sharable between different stakeholders. Public initiatives and governmental legislation need to facilitate application and development. Finally the objects in the Internet of Things need to be easily recognizable and available for mass adoption by users. Together these success factors can help develop the future vision of the Internet of Things, and enable it to revolutionize communication between businesses and people, empower consumers, and cause us to rethink and change our society.

The social aspect

Until now we’ve mainly looked at how the development of the Internet of Things can affect our physical lives, the market, developing technologies, and the data capturing capabilities of the “things” in our lives, the devices we have, but what about our social life, and specially our online social life? Social media sites like Facebook are known to have profound effects on people’s lives, by for example reinforcing feelings like self-esteem and having a positive effect on their social capital. The closer we get to the vision of the Internet of Things the more the “Things” in that Internet of Things will be able to participate in our social lives, and become social actors in our lives, even though they’re not human. Bleecker states that humans have previously had social communications with other types of life forms and names multiple examples of human-animal communications. He draws the conclusion that humans and technical devices can have a similar social communication, that these “Things” can participate in our social lives by bringing meaningful information to our notice, information that we wouldn’t have noticed. They are able to participate in our online social lives, for example by visualizing events on our social media sites, events that would have gone unnoticed, making them easier to understand, and by that further opening up the socio-technical network to less technical users. Fusing and applying social lnetworking principles to the Internet of Things, creating a Social Internet of Things (SIoT),could produce several advantages the application of the Internet of Things by increasing: scalability, network navigability, trust between humans and “Things”, and apply social network models to research of IoT issues. Atzori, Iera, and Morabito define the social relationships which compromise the SIoT: Firstly, a parental object relationship, were similar objects from the same manufacturer and built in a similar period, communicate.

Secondly, a co-location object relationship and a co-work object relationship, were objects consistently reside in the same location at home or work, or regularly communicate to provide a joint IoT application. Thirdly, a ownership object relationship were the objects belong to the same user, and finally a social object relationship, were the objects come into regular contact in relation to the relationship between their owners. For the Internet of Things to achieve its promise, it needs to incorporate all the different stakeholders which are affected by it: citizens, organizations, and governments to work together to fulfill their economic and societal needs.

The privacy aspect

We’ve discussed how the development of the Internet of Things can affect our online social lives, for example by bringing to notice and visualizing events from devices in our physical lives on to social media sites like Facebook, events that would have gone unnoticed. Social privacy is important to people, both in their online and physical lives, and even though their definition and perspective on privacy may be different and challenges previous norms of privacy, it’s still there. In the Internet of Things the focus is often on the security and privacy of the material “things”, enforcing security and privacy with firewalls, access control, authentication rules, physical security, and more. The development of the SIoT adds a different perspective of privacy. Fundamentally, privacy “includes the concealment of personal information as well as the ability to control what happens with this information”. The ability to control the situation, understanding who or what is listening and how far the information will travel. Social media sites like Facebook, have a long list of different privacy- and data policies meant to enable users6to customize and manage their own security- and privacy settings to conceal personal information to their own nee. Despite these policies being comprehensive and constantly evolving, research has shown that social media sites consistently leak private information. Further, their policy settings are troublesome, awareness of them is low, and often they do not match user’s expectations.

Facebook has had multiple privacy problems throughout the years and now offers multiple privacy models, when it comes to data and information people upload to their services: Only me, specific friends, Friends except some friends, friends of friends and tagged people, and everyone. Social media sites and applications like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, are already able to collect private information from our devices, like smartphones, which connect to their services. Further, they collect and use multiple types of information from people when they use on of their services: messages, communication, pictures, network information, location information, payment information, purchase information, device information, information from third-party websites and partners, and from other companies owned by Facebook. With this they are able to create huge data sets of private information, which in some cases can be traced back to the user, even if it’s anonymous. Boyd argues that privacy is not about access control but rather about the social conditions and situation awareness to other people, and that developers and scholars need to address this. The development and adoption of the Internet of Things calls for a complete reevaluation of security and privacy policies and the global legal framework.

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Even though the fundamental definition of privacy encompasses the need for users to control what happens with their private information, social media sites like Facebook do not offer users the option to select what information Facebook collects from their usage and how it’s used and processed by Facebook. The development and adoption of the Internet of Things and devices contributing to its network, capturing and inputting data without the participation of humans, and with inadequate legal frameworks, security and privacy policies. This new dimension of data collection with multiple types of: devices, social relationships, and new access points to private information, often unknown to users, may perhaps be more intrusive than all others before. Future research and development of legal frameworks, security and privacy policies need to develop not only to enable adoption and development of the Internet of Things but also consider all the new access points to people’s private information. Solving the privacy problem of the Internet of Things may just be the tip of the iceberg, it may all change with ubiquitous computing, in ways we can’t even imagine.

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