How the Internet of Things May be Used Against You

Earlier today, ReadWriteWeb editor Richard MacManus examined the future of social objects – that is, the future of the Internet of Things. This slow-growing trend encompasses how real-world objects are connected to the Internet using various technologies, including RFID chips, barcodes, sensors, bots and, to some extent, even mobile applications like Glue, which attaches a social history of sorts to an object like a book or a bottle of wine, albeit somewhat virtually.

While on the one hand, the idea of these self-aware “social objects” is intriguing, especially when you examine use cases like the “social tennis racquet,” as MacManus did, there is a flip side. Social objects can tattle on you, reporting data you don’t wish to share.

Case in point: a reader on technology news site TechDirt alerted them to a city initiative in Cleveland, Ohio, where RFID chips are being placed on recycling bins to monitor whether or not the bin has been taken to the curb. In theory, at least, this is helpful, useful data to the city’s trash-collecting department. If a chip reports that you haven’t been taking your bin to the curb for a number of weeks, a trash supervisor will sort through your garbage for recyclable items, saving them from the dump.

RFID data helps save Mother Earth, right?

Well, yes…but…

The catch here is that trash carts containing more than 10% recyclable material can lead to a $100 fine, according to Waste Collection Commissioner Ronnie Owens, as reported by local website The pilot program for these RFID-enabled bins began in 2007 with 15,000 households participating. The city has now approved spending $2.5 million on high-tech bins for 25,000 households and will continue at 25,000 households per year until all of the city’s 150,000 residents are covered.

On a personal level, you may support this “recycle or be fined” program, especially given the troubling state of the world’s environment. Maybe it’s time for recycling to move from being a personal choice to a legal requirement?

Tattletaling Objects

The implications of these data-collecting, tattletaling objects and their use by government cannot be overlooked. It begins with spying on your trash, but what’s next? Parking meters that know you snagged a few extra minutes because no one was around to write a ticket? Oh wait, that already exists. Vibration sensors that report when illegals cross the border? Hmm, that was done too. Biometric passports? We’re already there.Digital billboards that can be used for surveillance? Yikes. Trees that report back when poached? Done. A plan to coat the planet in billions of sensors that can monitor traffic, analyze climate change, oh, and recognize people, too? In progress.

By themselves, none of these current use-cases alone are a major affront to personal freedom (in this author’s opinion, that is). But there are many privacy advocates out there who find measures like these egregious violations of of our civil liberties.

Even if you fall more on the side of “eh, who cares?”, try this: imagine a future where all objects are “social” data-collectors who can report their use, their history, their location, etc. Now imagine the government or corporations accessing that data and taking action based on what the objects’ data tells them. Did your opinion change? If so, why?

This article is not meant to be alarmist – here at ReadWriteWeb, we’re big supporters of the Internet of Things and its potential. However, the trend has other implications for our world which may be less than positive – those need to be examined, too.

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