Home Should Consumers Fear The Internet of Things?

Should Consumers Fear The Internet of Things?

So far in this What The Internet of Things Means For You series we’ve looked at how the Internet of Things (when everyday objects are connected to the Web) will affect marketers and accountants. Some of the comments on those posts have requested that we look at the effect on consumers – i.e. all of us. Normally when discussing this topic in relation to consumers, two big issues rear their heads: privacy and security. So we’ll focus specifically on those two issues here.

One of the key aspects of the Internet of Things is the sheer volume of data it will introduce into the Web – and not just any data, but often very personal data.

Let’s use the oft-quoted example of RFID in grocery stores. When this particular dream (or nightmare, depending on your point of view) becomes a reality, you will be able to do your groceries with the aid of RFID tags on the food items and RFID readers in your mobile phone or credit card. On the plus side, this will make the shopping process more efficient and transparent. For example you can do comparative analysis of food items on the fly. Plus there’ll be no need for check-out, as everything will be automatically recorded against your mobile phone or credit card as you put it in your shopping cart.

The potential ‘dark side’ of this scenario is that at least two players in the retail chain will gather a lot of data about your precise shopping habits: the grocery store and the mobile phone and/or credit card company. Who knows what they will do with that data, right? Also who knows how secure it will be. Our own Dana Oshiro described the RFID chip as “the internet underground’s bubonic plague” in her post about the demise of consumer RFID company Violet this week.

A recent Wired UK article (hat-tip John Simpson for the link) summarized the dangers of this type of scenario:

“How naked will your personal preferences be to advertisers when your entire digital-TV remote-control clickstream is merged with your web-browsing history, your storecard and email data, records of all your movements via face-recognition cameras and radio frequency identification tags, and maps of your mobile phone’s signals? Even if you are determined to resist such data-led manipulation of your deepest desires, how do you know that this vast pool of information will not leak out or be used against your own interests, perhaps by a health insurer or a future employer?”

One person who is actively campaigning against RFID in supermarkets is Katherine Albrecht, who runs a site called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). It describes itself as “a national grass-roots consumer group dedicated to fighting supermarket “loyalty” or frequent shopper cards,” but RFID is also on its radar.

Albrecht wrote an article in 2002 that warned against the dangers of RFID, which she termed “the worst thing that ever happened to consumer privacy.” As is typical with RFID predictions, many of the timelines mentioned in Albrecht’s article have failed to pan out (“these tiny tags, predicted by some to cost less than 1 cent each by 2004…” Yeah right). However the warnings are still relevant, if a little scare-mongering:

“Though many RFID proponents appear focused on inventory and supply chain efficiency, others are developing financial and consumer applications that, if adopted, will have chilling effects on consumers’ ability to escape the oppressive surveillance of manufacturers, retailers, and marketers. Of course, government and law enforcement will be quick to use the technology to keep tabs on citizens, as well.”

There’s no evidence to suggest that the effects will be “chilling” or that marketers will be “oppressive,” however it’s certainly a good idea for us consumers to be wary about privacy and security issues. You can also read Katherine Albrecht on the spychips website (hat-tip to ReadWriteWeb reader Gene Becker for pointing out Albrecht’s work).

Personally I believe that RFID, and Internet of Things in general (RFID is just an enabling technology), will bring more good than bad. The work of Albrecht and others will help to police retailers and governments, to ensure appropriate privacy and security rules are put in place. But these technologies are coming, whether we like them or not, because they are simply more efficient and offer much more functionality – for consumers, marketers, retailers alike. Let us know your opinion in the comments.

Flickr photo credits: cbmd; Manuel Monroy Correa; Touchatag

See also:Consumer Electronics 2.0: MIT’s Henry Holtzman on The Internet of Things

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