Privacy and the Internet of Things

16 October 2017

This week, our topic is "The Internet of Things." What will life be like when every road you travel, every device you own, every building you enter is connected to the internet? Will these developments transform our world in ways that enrich our lives? Or will they just create more opportunities for hackers, corporations, and governments to pry into every aspect of our lives?

Now in one way the internet of things can seem like it can’t be all that big of a deal. The internet has been around for several decades. And while the internet has already affected our lives in many ways, it’s not immediately obvious that things will be all that different when we connect more things to the internet.

But in fact, we’re talking about a true sea change in the digital landscape. Start with the vast number and variety of things that will be involved in the internet of things. We’re not talking about just the usual suspects like computers, smart phones and, lately, watches. It goes way beyond that. It’s cars, refrigerators, potentially every system or appliance in every building in the world. And then there are roads, bridges, train tracks. And monitors of every sort: heart monitors, sleep monitors, baby monitors. And we’re not just talking about passively hooking them up to the internet, we’re also talking about making each of these new things on the internet smart.

Soon there will be billions of interconnected smart devices, collecting and analyzing reams and reams of data, autonomously sharing it, all without any human intervention. Think of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Imagine smart bridges that constantly monitor their own state and automatically alert the transportation department when they need repair and maybe shut themselves down and spontaneously reroute traffic while they are waiting for the repair crews to arrive. It's almost as if the roadway system itself will be a living, thinking thing. 

That’s the upside. But there’s a downside. And you don’t have to be a luddite to worry about the potential downside of the Internet of Things. After all, is it really so crystal clear that we should be rapidly building a world in which every device or physical structure we own, operate, or interact with is constantly collecting, analyzing, and transmitting reams and reams of data on us, without even asking for our permission? What will happen to our privacy in such a world? What will become of our security in such a world? How will we prevent the Internet of Things from becoming a hacker’s paradise?

The answer to the last question that the industry likes to give is that everything will be encrypted. One can of course worry that what can be encrypted can be de-encrypted. But insiders insist that we are in an age of nearly fool-proof encryption. You can't  de-encrypt what has been encrypted without an encryption key. And today's encryption algorithms generate highly complex and random encryption keys that are all but impossible to break. Against such sophisticated encryption technology hackers don’t really stand a chance. Or so they like to say! Maybe that’s right.... maybe. But who really knows? The proof will be in the pudding. And even if encryption is as fool proof as they say, we’re still going to have governments with their already insatiable demands for back doors to deal with. What about that?

The citizen in me, the one who deeply believes in democracy, wants to say in response that the government is ultimately answerable to us, the citizens. So if we citizens don’t accept back doors, governments won’t get back doors! Besides, the corporations are on our side in this. They don’t want to give governments back doors either. Their business model in the age of the internet of things will depend on selling you not just astounding convenience, but rock rib security that they can promise cannot be broken. 

The problem is that it’s not just the US government, or even democratically accountable and responsible governments that are the issue. It’s governments all over the world, from the most authoritarian and anti-democratic to the least authoritarian that want back doors. And they want them for pretty much the same reason—so called national security, especially in when there are a growing array of non-state actors who organize themselves and mobilize their constituencies via the internet. And I’m afraid that governments have a way of getting what they want, whatever their citizens may say, especially when it comes to claims of national security.

Look, I suppose we could try waging a new and vigorous fight for world-wide consumer rights in the age of the internet of things. I don't deny that such a struggle would be worth the effort, even if it proves ultimately fruitless. But then I tend to have a thing for the tragic hero, who struggles to will himself into being, against all conceivable odds. But the thought that we will both create a world-wide internet of things, that collects, stories, analyses and shares information on just about everything human beings do and that governments and bad guys will not find ways to get their grubby hands on all that data seems like, well, a pipe dream.

I don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water. We surely do want some of the many benefits that the internet of things is likely to bring. I wear a fitness tracking device everywhere I go. I want medical researchers to have access to that data—at least if it’s depersonalized and aggregated with other people’s data. Of course, my insurance company is a different thing entirely. I’m not sure that I want them to have access to that data, especially if it means that they can, say, raise my rates whenever they detect that I am slacking off. I Just don’t want to give them that much power over me.

The deeper question lurking just beneath the surface here is about who will own and control all this information. You can bet it won’t be the individual consumer! It’s much more likely to be private corporations. In a way, we have already crossed that Rubicon. Huge corporations already track just about every click we make on the current internet. And though that hasn’t caused people to completely abandon the internet, it has played an important role in the growth of the dark web that lies mostly beyond the reach of prying eyes. Which raises the possibiliy that by expanding the reach of prying eyes, by pushing traditional cyberspace out into physical space more and more, the internet of things will drive more and more people underground. Do we really want that? Bad things happen, I am told, on the dark web. 

In all honesty, I doubt there’s any stopping the growth of either the internet of things or even that of the dark web. But I do think it would be good if we slowed down a bit and thought about the world we are creating before taking the full plunge into the inevitable future. So join us as we do just that—slow down and think more carefully and philosophically about the pros and cons of this new fangled internet of things that is rushing upon us like a ferocious storm. 

Comments (9)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 16, 2017 -- 12:08 PM

I made up my mind about most

I made up my mind about most of the social media madness several years ago. I'm agin' it. Don't do it. No way. No how. Over the last few months, I have particularly noticed the self-imposed alienation of many who have replaced their social lives with social media life. They do not know how to relate to human beings, one to one and in the flesh. I mentioned in another comment that I had stumbled across Diane Ackerman. I was taken by her following remarks from page 122 of THE HUMAN AGE: "...Nature is dynamic and haphazard, and so are we---not a serene combo. Maybe it's one that's best described in paradoxes such as organized chaos, but we're not beings who feel comfortable with paradox. Paradox tugs the brain in opposite directions, confounds our quest for simple truths, and throws a monkey wrench into the delights of habit..." It goes on for a bit, talking about disorderly beings with order-craving minds. As Wilber said often: And just so. Perhaps that is all that all of this Internet stuff is about. Trendy moderns fear a disorganized world; disorganized leaders; messy stuff. But, well, that is who we are. It is a substrate of our humanness. Like it , or not.

npauthor's picture


Monday, October 16, 2017 -- 12:23 PM

We fool ourselves by

We fool ourselves by trusting that scientists or science as a whole has a soul. Neither as a matter of course takes into consideration the topic of integrity, rarely ever stopping to challenge or even question the moral consequences of any innovation, consumed with giddiness and self-congratulatory arrogance. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and many others, before and since have shone the light of introspection on this human weakness, the Internet along with the many other threads having emanated from it in recent years just the latest evidence of our humanity's hubris.

Further, the dichotomy of industry v. government is a false, misleading and mostly non-existent one. It should be obvious to all but those denying climate change that the two have melded into one all-encompassing, seamless entity which is quickly swallowing up what's left of privacy, democratic principles, concern for the common good, physical and psychological health, not to mention the planet itself, sanity and civility.

mirugai's picture


Monday, October 16, 2017 -- 4:54 PM



The PG&E gas explosion in San Bruno a few years back was blamed on gas lines rupturing under unusual pressure that the lines were not capable of withstanding. It was never settled whether the lines were dilapidated, or not designed or situated or connected adequately. Or whether some kind of event of higher than usual pressure occurred.

The fires in the north bay have a few unusual features which surprised me. One, while undoubtedly many fires were ignited by embers from trees and bushes on fire blown by winds, the grid pattern of house destruction and its uniformity suggests other sources for those in housing developments. Hundreds of houses seem to have been burned up simultaneously; and burned up rapidly, so rapidly that a fire department did not have time to respond to a fire in one house before it could spread to another. Also, I saw many videos of houses on fire not from fire on the roof, but from fire starting in the basement or under the house. Many destroyed house sites I saw still had flames actively coming from gas lines indicating that the gas lines to the development had not been turned off or capped upstream or at mains.

Every house now comes with a computer/internet wired meter.

Could the system be hacked so that the gas lines were over loaded and then the safety shut off disabled (which they clearly were). Every house has an open gas pilot in the water heater or in a gas furnace pilot (it was getting cold at night and this might have been the first time furnaces were in use), or in the kitchen stove, or in the faux fireplace, to ignite gas accumulation.

If this turns out to have been the cause, would the “government” tell us so? How could such a thing be prevented? Even if it wasn’t a cyber attack, is this a realistic scenario?

OzzyData's picture


Friday, October 20, 2017 -- 8:54 AM

I heard the podcast last

I heard the podcast last night and really liked it. But there is one issue that we slightly alluded to but never addressed full on: what merchants and marketers do once they have such intimate access to us. This has already made our devices traitorous.

Merchants and marketers pester the hell out of us.
- There are alerts that are defaulted "on" and we have to figure out how to opt out of them.
- Devices come with apps and features that we cannot uninstall or disable; and they serve no real function other than an opportunity to serve ads to us.
- Apps that we want to use require certain permissions that are hard to understand. It might be legitimate for a video player to control my phone calls, but it's not clear to me why.

In short. We DO NOT have the control over our devices that Hewitt kept saying.

So, when I think about an expanded IoT I think of even more marketing opportunities for someone else and more disruptions in my life.

I imagine a smart refrigerator that text messages me to let me know my buttermilk has expired AND it's got a coupon for more buttermilk. But I don't want more buttermilk. It was for a single recipe and I'm done.

The Iot also represents a need for constant updates, patches and a need to be online. What happens if I fall behind on my bill and the internet gets shut off? That leads to the fact that the ISPs treat internet service like entertainment delivery while more and more of us rely on internet like a utility. I don't like calling Comcast and my conversation about work/professional needs are entangled with HBO and how many TV channels I can get.

Those are the ways that I find these devices as already traitorous. It's not just a conversation about hacking, government and privacy. Also, if the government has spied on me, I don't know. But many times EVERY DAY, the corporate interests connected to my phone offer a steady stream of annoyances.

I DO NOT want a smart refrigerator, alarm clock, shower head, razor, washing machine, etc. I see it as just more pestering when I'm already in a ridiculous battle just to get some peace.

Ken Taylor's picture

Ken Taylor

Monday, October 23, 2017 -- 4:27 AM

Hi OzzyData:

Hi OzzyData:

I agree that Carl was a little too sanguine for my own tastes about the potential for alignment between the interests of the producer and the interests of the consumer. At a bare minimum, you are right that smart devices will be used by producers as major marketing opportunities. But I think it goes far, far beyond that. The economic incentives for producers to collect and pool data from our smart devices in data centers is enormous. Though we consumers will surely want SOME of our data pooled, we want far less of it pooled than producers will want to see pooled. Thus some sort of tug of war will ensue. And I wouldn't at all place my bets on the power of the consumer to win that tug of war.

OzzyData's picture


Tuesday, October 24, 2017 -- 12:57 PM

Ken, yes. You all did an

Ken, yes. You all did an excellent job discussing the problems of pooled data, privacy and asking what kind of world we want to live in.

The distinction I'm making is perhaps less urgent than one of privacy. It's an issue that falls under the topic of "Persuasive Technology." It's a discipline that's used for keeping us on platforms, apps, and devices. Tristan Harris, formerly of Google, describes a trick that Facebook uses:

Being notified about someone's birthday isn't this noble thing from Facebook's standpoint. It's actually a way to get people into reciprocal transactions to stay on Facebook as long as possible. If I see that it's Joan's birthday, I feel some guilt to post "Happy Birthday." Joan, in turn, feels guilted into saying "thank you."

And what happens when we're on FB longer? We see more ads.

Tristan Harris also warns that there's a perspective that has to be dealt with: "the more time I steal from you, the more money I make."

That summarizes why I believe our devices are already traitorous. As the Internet-of-Things expands, I just see more annoyances that steal time from us. And, like you, I don't see how consumers are going to win this tug-of-war.'s picture


Tuesday, February 18, 2020 -- 1:16 PM

I was unsettled to hear the

I was unsettled to hear the voice of Ken Taylor, recently deceased, booming out of my radio last week and this. Perhaps the fact that these episodes were archival, from 2017, could have been announced at the programs' outset.

As for the cheery assurance of the MIT engineer guest that our privacy is safe, so long as our government doesn't pass a law making a "backdoor" mandatory on our devices. This is far from reassuring, since those who want such access to our personal date can keep pushing for it, and lobbying for it, until eventually it becomes law - at which point even the cheery engineer admits all is lost. Well, what are the odds that, sooner or later, in the dead of night, perhaps, on Christmas Eve, that law will pass? Pretty good, I'd say - darn near inevitable, in fact. And by then when your "dumb" refrigerator dies, there won't even be any to replace it with but a shiny new "smart" refrigerator, ready to start pumping your data to the govt., and to anyone else able to hack in.