Should we be worried about the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things, while still largely unknown amongst the general public, is expected to make a big impact in 2015. Research by Gartner indicates that the number of connected devices will reach 4.9 billion this year, but not everyone is getting excited about this developing technology.

Earlier this week in fact, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission Edith Ramirez issued a pretty strong warning regarding IoT devices and the threat that they pose to privacy. Countering those who put forward potential IoT benefits, Ms Ramirez argued that the “deeply personal” information gathered by connected devices has the potential to be seriously invasive.

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“I question the notion that we must put sensitive consumer data at risk on the off-chance a company might someday discover a valuable use for the information,” she said.

However, is Ms Ramirez merely scaremongering, or should consumers really be worried about the predicted explosion in IoT products?

In support of her concerns, one need only look at reports in 2014, that a relatively straightforward hack to Google’s Nest thermostat could enable the device to be used for spying. Nest is one of the first IoT devices to gain relatively widespread adoption, with the firm reportedly shipping 40,000 to 50,000 units every month back in 2013. However, at a BlackHat security conference last year, the device was found to be worryingly vulnerable to physical hacking.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida found that by holding down the power button and inserting a USB flash drive anyone could enter Nest’s developer mode and access information about the owner or upload malicious code.

A recent Kaspersky report also highlighted that connected devices in the workplace, such as networked printers and other corporate gadgets, are likely to face an increasing number of attacks, as hackers seek access to corporate systems.

While worrying, malicious hacks and surveillance programmes are difficult to prevent entirely across any device. Perhaps more disturbing, is the kind of privacy invasion being suggested by Ms Ramirez, a more subtle form of data acquisition by big businesses all over the world.

Personal data is a hugely valuable commodity, particularly amongst advertisers who can use the information to serve targeted ads based on an individual’s background, preferences or location. With home security systems, thermostats, and even smart home appliances already in existence, the growth of the Internet of Things will surely increase the amount of data available and hence the market for its purchase.

Smartphone apps have already demonstrated a blatant disregard for consumer privacy, so why would IoT companies behave any differently? A recent French report found that some Android apps track their users more than one million times in a single month in order to serve them targeted ads.

If IoT devices do show greater respect for individual privacy it will largely be a result of increased consumer awareness.

The general public are becoming more and more sensitive to their personal data and how easily accessible it is. As a result, consumer trust in online services is on the wane. A recent Open-Xchange report found that just nine per cent of Internet users felt that they had complete control over their personal data. Moreover, 54 per cent were willing to walk away from a service if sensitive information was shared with intelligence agencies or the police.

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If the Internet of Things is to achieve widespread appeal, it will need to alleviate these concerns and the key method is likely to be transparency. Some users may be more than willing to share their personal information with companies, but they will surely want to be informed of why and how that data is being used.

The Internet of Things has the potential to greatly improve functionality and efficiency for consumers and businesses alike and it would be to the detriment of this fledgling industry if it was perceived to be more invasive than innovative.