Much is being written in breathless tones about the Internet of Things and the effects it will have on me, you, us, and the planet. Some cheer “Cures for cancer!” and “Commutes without traffic jams!” Others bemoan “Total loss of privacy!” and “All knowing companies that will outsmart me and charge me more money!”
Despite uncertainty, one thing is clear; the Internet of Things will be no small thing. Witness, for example, IBM’s recent announcement that they alone will invest $3 billion in establishing markets and services for the Internet of Things expansion. How big? Well, at least four different markets big and we should analyze and consider them independently.
Perhaps because it is so new the “Internet of Things” defies easy explanation. Those involved in the birthing process struggle to describe it, instead falling back on a mixture of allusion and allegory, hyperbole and hope. Simply described, the emerging Internet of Things is a catchall phrase for the introduction of sensors – connected to the Internet – that will broadcast information from the world’s devices.
This phenomenon will amaze because it should facilitate wide collection, distribution and analysis of data that likely never was shared by the computers by which it was collected. Most likely that data rested comfortably deep within the computers, phones or banks of servers, sort of like insulation in your house or that box of stuff you never unpacked from your last house. It was doing something but only computer coders acknowledged its collection. Even fewer knew what to do with that data, until recently.
If the Internet of Things flourishes, we can learn many things. We could, perhaps, know when factory equipment is breaking down before its failing causes a plant-wide work stoppage. We might know when appliances are inefficiently operating in our homes and learn how they might be optimized. We might learn how to efficiently board an airplane or get travelers through screening checkpoints. Our clothing might monitor our body temperature and send the signal to the AC unit to turn on or off.
The broad Internet of Things concept, however, needs to be discussed in precise terms. Doing so would benefit businesses, regulators and consumers. Broken down into its component parts the Internet of Things is four separate Internets. It is comprised of an: Internet of Me; Internet of Us; Internet of It; and, an Internet of Those. The first two categories are the sensors that will collect information about one specific person or groups of people. The latter two categories are the new sensors coming on line that won’t collect information about people at all. The Internet of It will collect information about one device and the Internet of Those about many devices.
The Internets of It and Those two pose virtually no privacy risk at all. The case for unlimited data collection and use to spawn innovation here is unquestionable since individuals’ information will not be gathered. Device sensors not focused on a person or people could produce a new golden era of science and engineering advancements. Although new types of abuses might arise, even when a multitude of devices are strung together through connected sensors an Internet of Those poses virtually no privacy risk. Unless there are intentional efforts to misuse the big data sets produced by it, the Internet of Those also is unlikely to create new consumer protection or societal risks. That is because the data gathered is not about people.
Should regulators take preemptive action in response to the dawning Internet of Me and Internet of Us simply because the sensors being brought on line might collect more information about me and us than ever before? Two differences will emerge from current corporate collection of consumer data. First, companies will collect far more data about each person and groups of people. Second, companies might collect new data that is either sensitive data about a person, or that may be risky because when it is combined with other data sets it may unlock sensitive data about a person or groups of people. Existing, flexible privacy regulatory structures seem well suited to protect against additional data volume and new sensitive data set threats. Companies’ growing awareness that they must safeguard data makes it unlikely that simply having more or new kinds of data pose a noteworthy privacy threat. Personalized clothing that responds to your body’s signals or data about everyone’s commutes will be personally and societally valuable, to cite just two likely applications of collection from an Internet of Me and an Internet of Us.
Still remote but more likely is that some unethical business misuses extra data or new data sets for a new scam or to perpetrate some act of consumer discrimination. The history of technological change shows that scams and abuses appear in new markets following new technologies’ introduction. Therefore, the beneficiaries of the four Internets of Things will need to police their industries to limit data misuses. The Federal Trade Commission and the state Attorneys General also are there to respond if data misuses occur. In the meantime, the individual and collective benefits from this technological revolution are likely to more than outweigh any potential future harm. IBM certainly thinks so, at least.
The key to having our metaphorical cake of advanced knowledge and eating it too is for businesses and policy makers globally to make an early and important distinction between where sensors are and what they collect. Other important distinctions will certainly also become obvious over time. Describing precisely the Internet of At Least Four Things can help businesses and consumers maximize the benefits and limit the downside of this emerging sensor revolution.
This article was written by Tim Sparapani from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.