IoT is helping make privacy and autonomy the preserve of the powerful. As technology’s glare increases, it’s imperative we question who benefits from it.
Employees of a software company in Sweden had implanted chips in their wrists that activated the company photocopier. Yes, you read that right. Having minor surgery instead of just remembering a four-digit PIN is a pretty daft idea. You’d have to be a tech utopian to want to do it.
But this news story wasn’t just about privacy and new technologies, and how “we’ll all soon be doing it”. This story was about power: who has it, who doesn’t, how it is used. And the internet of things, too, is about power.
The internet of things connects objects to networks and exploits the data that is generated. Most of this information is machine-to-machine. For example, a Boeing 777 may generate 20 terabytes of data per engine per hour. Most of the “things” in the internet of things are focused on supply chains and on machine and system performance, not on consumers. But that is changing.
By 2020, it’s claimed that up to 100 billion devices will be connected to private networks or to the internet. The data this creates is crunched by secret algorithms analysing how machines and systems work, how economies function and, increasingly, how humans live .
On one end of the scale we have sensor networks, proprietary and open-source protocols and standards, and a Hobbesian war of all against all between commercial behemoths like Apple, Google, Cisco, Oracle, SAP, GE and others you have never heard of. On the other end, there’s the T-shirt that can talk to your washing machine, the ubiquitous ads that just know you’re re-thinking your summer wardrobe, the self-driving car, the smart city.
Sure, the set of hardware, software, platforms and business models shooting up around the internet of things have the potential to do good. But they do not come innocent into a world of plenty. The internet of things will be be as much determined by its own revenue imperatives and ownership structures as our society is by inequality, consumerism and the politics of fear. The internet of things is a set of heavily invested capabilities in search of long and deep profit. Where it meets individuals, its goal is to hoover up information about us, use that to optimise processes, nudge us to earn more, consume more, depend on each other less.
Unlike those enthusiastic and well-rewarded Scandinavian programmers, you and I don’t generally opt into the internet of things. The “trade-off” of consumers sacrificing privacy for convenience or lower prices is a myth. Faced with pages of legalese and all-or-nothing terms and conditions, US research found that individuals accept online and physical tracking by businesses because they believe that if they refuse it will happen anyway:
… people feel they cannot do anything to seriously manage their personal information the way they want. Moreover, they feel they would face significant social and economic penalties if they were to opt out of all the services of a modern economy that rely on an exchange of content for data. So they have slid into resignation.
The unholy alliance of CCTV, face recognition, mobile phones, fitness trackers and other wearable technologies, data brokerage and analytics, private ownership and control of previously public spaces like city squares, and increasingly wide-ranging policing powers mean we live in an urban world of ambient surveillance we never voted for. We are no longer citizens enjoying civic space; we are crops to be harvested, we are potential risks to be controlled. The internet of things does all that for us and more.
With its insecure devices with multiple points of data access, user applications that routinely exfiltrate our sensor data, activity logs and personal contacts, and a Sisyphean uphill struggle required to exert any control over who knows what about us, the internet of things does more than create whole new cyber-security attack surfaces. It is so riddled with metastasising points of vulnerability that you begin to sense that these are not bugs, but features. As we walk around our increasingly “smart cities”, we are haemorrhaging data; but we will not be the ones to primarily benefit from mopping it up.
Think about it.
Who benefits from a car that transmits vast amounts of data about its use (and therefore its user) back to the manufacturer and potentially on to third parties like insurers? Who is the “you” who’ll enjoy a supposedly better-designed successor vehicle, the “you” who might be offered lower premiums? Who is the “you” the energy company (or the online retailer, or the bank) will data-mine and offer a better rate to, and the “you” that will be offered the worst cash-only deals or simply cut off?
The entire point of combining sensor and object data with individualised behavioural data sets is to create ever richer profiles that more efficiently segregate the marketplace into winners and losers. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes studying the US credit-rating agencies knows they rack up the costs of being poor (and Black), amplify inequality and disappear down a rabbit hole of proprietary methods and non-disclosure agreements the moment you try to figure out why one bad datum means you suddenly can’t get credit, an apartment lease or even a job interview. Systems go wrong. Proprietary and unaccountable systems go horribly wrong and inherently lack the ability to fix themselves.
But while individuals are increasingly and with less choice living their lives out in the open, the companies and governments making money and decisions about us are not. Freedom of Information about public policy-making is being systematically rolled back. Companies increasingly obscure their actions behind a fog of NDAs, complex ownership structures and “proprietary information and processes”. Show me the sensor network that tells us anything useful about the private companies running our prisons or large chunks of the welfare system. Show me the big data set being mined to reduce the class ceiling.
The internet of things is a multi-billion pound industry set for 10 percent compound growth rates every year until 2020. But it is also what Frank Pasquale calls a one-way mirror. We are visible, not to say naked, in front of it; and behind it lies … who knows?
On that BBC programme, I tried to point out that privacy is something you have a lot less of the less powerful you are, especially in an employment relationship. It is supposed to be a right, not a luxury good. But the employees subjected to the tracking, data-gathering and zero-hours coercion the internet of things makes possible and profitable will not be the well-educated geeks who can jump to the next start-up when they tire of the free coffee (and realise they need a new chip implanted for the new photocopier). They will be the hotel cleaners, the retail warehouse pickers, the security guards and the harried carers.
Surveillance capitalism is not the only way. Let’s stop thinking of privacy as something to do with data protection, as a set of information rights that can be banished by the magic spell of “consent”. Privacy is just another name for autonomy, for the ability to use a little intelligence and independence in our work – however “lowly” – for the right to simply be in a public space without needing an excuse or a credit card, for the ability to look through that one-way mirror and see who is looking back at us.
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