Orwellian Internet of Things

In 1949, English author George Orwell wrote the novel “1984,” which described a futuristic tyrannical society with omnipresent government surveillance by an entity known as “Big Brother.” Big Brother was not a helpful and nurturing sibling but an entity that seeks power for its own sake and not for the good of others. Since his writing, Orwellian is an adjective reflecting actions that could be destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. Privacy advocates are concerned that many types of gadgets and home automation devices, falling under the Internet of Things (IoT) megatrend, when paired with advanced analytics capabilities, have the potential to have Orwellian impacts on society.
There are a wide range of IoT devices that are designed to scoop up massive amounts of data to aid humans and other systems in our modern society. But as more and more data are collected and analyzed, many privacy advocates fear we are losing more and more of our anonymity and individual freedom. For example, when considering IoT devices, privacy advocates are concerned with a variety of questions. What data are IoT devices collecting? Who has access to these data? How can these data be used? And, as news reports demonstrate, IoT data can be used in unexpected, interesting, and legally significant ways.
Imagine all of the things that could be equipped with a sensor and have data collected about their use. For example, things like your toaster, refrigerator, thermostat, lighting, and even the front door lock on your apartment. All of those seem kind of cool, right? What about your toilet? That doesn’t sound too cool. If you have any concerns about a government reading your e-mail, how would you feel about a database collecting information on every time your toilet flushes? Imagine what a medical research group could do with such data. In sum, the data collected for every thing could end up in the hands of law enforcement, the government, marketing companies, and even malicious hackers. And this is not science fiction.
In 2016, the U.S. government admitted it was using IoT devices for spying and snooping on possible terrorists and criminals. The U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, made it clear that IoT sensors and devices are providing ample opportunities for intelligence agencies to spy on targets. “In the future, intelligence services might use the [Internet of Things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” Clapper told a Senate panel as part of his annual “assessment of threats” against the United States.
In combination with advanced analytics, the IoT will allow companies to provide unprecedented services to customers. Reminders, automatic ordering, activity tracking, and a plethora of other conveniences will become a normal part of our lives. However, with all of these conveniences, we will also be providing an abundance of data about our daily lives that can at a minimum be a privacy invasion or be misused by malicious hackers or even our own government. While such Orwellian concerns were not possible in 1984, in today’s digital world, Big Brother has arrived.

1. If you use a fitness tracker or some other IoT device, should the company be able to sell your data? Would it be acceptable to share the data with some but not others? Explain.

2. Typically, the company providing an IoT device owns its customers’ data. What laws or rules are needed to balance the needs of the company and the privacy of customers?

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