Privacy in the age of the internet of everything

Woman using mobile phone Michelle Dennedy, Vice President and Chief Privacy Officer at Cisco, on the four dimensions of the internet of things and the parts they play in data privacy

When I think about the internet of things (IoT), I actually refer to it as the ‟internet of everything”: fifty billion sensors, devices and information gathering technology that are becoming increasingly integrated into our world.

The internet of things is made up of four components. I call them the ‟four e’s”: everything, everyone, ethics and experiences. These are facets of the IoT that have qualitatively and quantitatively changed how companies look at privacy these days:

  • Internet of everything: The internet of everything basically describes the IoT as a whole. This includes factory sensors, global positioning systems, wearable devices and smart technology that can tell you when it’s time to reorder groceries or how healthy you are. There is a need now to connect everyday things to the internet, and to add content that will make these connections meaningful.
  • Internet of everyone: The people dimension of IoT is where privacy, as a notion of the authorized processing of personalized identifiable information according to fair legal and moral principles, lives. In the process of the internet of everything gathering and transferring information, everyone must have a say. If the internet of everything, and the data associated with it, offers a quantitative distinction, the internet of everyone makes a qualitative difference. We need to be designing the internet of everything so that everyone can feel as though they have the right level of control and management over their data.
  • Internet of ethics: The question we’d have to ask ourselves is how can we make a network of devices ethical? Devices, after all, do not understand ethics or recognize cultural barriers. Cultural norming varies vastly from household to household, and we need to have a really robust, cross-cultural and cross-generational discussion around the ethical dimension of the internet of everything that considers all kinds of different perspectives, as well as the quantitative and qualitative differences when we think about exponential data flow.
  • Internet of experience: People like the experience of being able to communicate via their smart devices. However, the experiential dimension isn’t only about what technology can do for us, but also what experience we want to have, and who gets to control them. We also need to consider whether all of these billions of individual experiences need to be recorded, tracked and saved. We need to do a better job of documenting what’s important and deleting the rest.

Most of the time, we tend to see the IoT as technology that gathers data for the purpose of making our lives easier. What’s missing in this quantitative equation – what acts as the qualitative differentiator by understanding and explaining what the data can’t – is the human element. In a world of connected devices and networks, the most important thing we need to do is remember to be what we are – human.

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