will help you avoid traffic jams as you travel from work
to that hot new spot you’ve been dying to try out,
tell you on the way about the bar’s half-price coupons
and let you check your home video monitors while
knocking back a few to see if your cat is clawing the
it also might alert your insurer if your car is weaving
when you head home and report your frequent drinking to
is the Internet of Things, which promises to transform
daily life, making it easier to work, travel, shop and
stay healthy. Thanks to billions of connected devices
— from smart toothbrushes and thermostats to
commercial drones and robotic companions for the elderly
— it also will end up gathering vast amounts of data
that could provide insights about our sexual habits,
religious beliefs, political leanings and other highly
personal aspects of our lives. That creates a
potentially enormous threat to our privacy — even
within the sanctuary of our homes.
are incredibly convenient devices," said University
of Colorado law professor Scott Peppet, who has
extensively researched the Internet of Things.
"They are magical."
he added, "I don’t think we’re being overly
reactive to say, ‘Wait a minute, what are the
constraints on using that information? I just want to
know what you are going to do with my data.’ "
what happens to the data spewed out by all these
interlinked machines is a deep concern shared by many
security researchers, legal authorities, government
officials and consumer advocates. They fear the
information could be used to skew our credit ratings,
jack up our insurance rates, help hackers steal our
money, or enable spy agencies to compile detailed
dossiers on each of us. Moreover, they say, this vast
sea of data could be misused to put a high-tech twist on
the age-old curse of discrimination, with unscrupulous
landlords or employers excluding people based on the
data they’ve secretly acquired.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
technology is quickly becoming reality, with scores of
helpful smart devices already on the market, including
some from Bay Area companies.
from San Francisco-based Lively alert relatives when an
older family member fails to take medicine, eat or
return home from a walk. Nest thermostats from Google in
Mountain View, Calif., learn and automatically adjust to
how warm or cool their owners want their houses. Mobile
robots from Suitable Technologies of Palo Alto, Calif.,
feature screens that let people video conference from
various locations. And dog owners can remotely check on
what their pooches are doing with a smart collar by
Whistle of San Francisco.
other advantages, the devices are widely expected to
improve public health by keeping patients in closer
touch with doctors, reduce highway deaths by
automatically braking vehicles to avoid crashes, boost
food supplies by helping farmers tend their crops, and
quickly notify authorities about environmental mishaps.
When the nonprofit Pew Research Center queried more than
1,600 experts on the subject, 83 percent predicted the
Internet of Things will "have widespread and
beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public
with devices from cars to refrigerators to coffee pots
recording everything we do and transmitting the
information to others, many people may find the
idea that when I’m in my house or on my property or in
my car, I’m somehow in a surveillance-free zone —
no, it’s not true," said Electronic Frontier
Foundation attorney Lee Tien. "We’re seeing just
a tremendous explosion of surveillance."
people already reveal much about themselves through
their Internet searches and social media posts, that’s
nothing compared with the trove of personal data likely
to be disclosed by the Internet of Things.
when designed for limited functions, experts say, many
of these Web-linked gadgets will record whatever they
see and hear in homes, which could provide detailed
dossiers on the people living there, especially when
combined with what’s amassed by other interconnected
machines. The personal data revealed could include
everything from your friends, hobbies and daily routines
to your political views, religious affiliation and even
your sexual activities.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
politics might be disclosed if you routinely watch
like-minded programs on your Web-connected TV and use
your personal robot’s videoconferencing capabilities
for online meetings with a group that shares your views.
And if you’ve declared your political allegiance in
private comments, your voice-activated gadgets might
have picked those up and stored them as text on the
religious orientation, on the other hand, might be
divulged by your Internet-linked refrigerator. Because
those appliances are expected to become so smart they’ll
automatically order more eggs, beer or other items for
you when supplies run low, yours might signal that you’re
Jewish, for example, if it frequently gets you kosher
other gadgets might put your love life on display if,
for instance, you pick up someone you meet at that new
bar after work.
conceivable if your home security camera tapes the two
of you undressing and its face-recognition software
determines your date is a prominent local official,
while your wearable fitness device calculates from the
calories you proceed to burn that you must be having
sex. Disclosing those details could prove embarrassing,
especially if you’re both married. It could be even
more so if your wireless health monitor a week later
fires off an alert to your doctor that you’ve just
contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
how could others see that personal information?
of it is expected to flow directly from the gadgets to
the businesses that made them. Legal experts say federal
and state laws poorly regulate how the information can
be used, and the companies already selling smart gadgets
often are vague about what they do with the data or
whether they sell it to others. Consequently, it’s
possible someone’s personal details could bounce
around the Internet and be accessed by countless people.
firms often say they "de-identify" the data so
it can’t be attributed to individuals. Yet researchers
have found it’s frequently possible to
"re-identify" data by combining it with other
available facts. As a result, a White House report in
May concluded that data re-identification "creates
substantial uncertainty" about peoples’ ability
to control their personal information.
raises another red flag for the administration and
experts in the field. The White House study warns that
the growing deluge of data could result in
"discriminatory outcomes for disadvantaged
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
illegal to discriminate against anyone based on their
race, color, religion, national origin or sex. But given
the uncertainty about who might see the information
disgorged by these smart gadgets, it’s widely feared
the data might be used to treat people unfairly without
their knowledge. For example, experts say, a person
might get turned down for an apartment if their devices
reveal their sexual or religious orientation to a
also conceivable employers might refuse to hire someone
after learning from the person’s medical or fitness
gadgets that they’ve got a health problem, said
Rebecca Herold, a privacy consultant and adjunct
professor at Norwich University in Vermont. Moreover,
while banks and other creditors generally are prohibited
from inquiring about a loan applicant’s sex and race,
she said, they might "turn down a loan to such an
individual" after surreptitiously learning those
details from the applicant’s devices.
this worries Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith
the data transmitted be shared with your insurer, who
may raise your rate or cancel your policy?" she
wondered aloud during a conference on the Internet of
Things. "Will your TV viewing habits be shared with
prospective employers or schools or with data brokers,
who will put that nugget together with information
collected by your parking-lot security gate, your heart
monitor and your smartphone, and paint a picture of you
that you won’t see, but that others will?"
those hoping to gain access to the information are
advertisers. They plan to parse it for details about
consumers so they then can pitch them products tailored
to their individual preferences via their brainy
gadgets, which could result in people’s homes being
deluged with ads. In a regulatory filing, Google
forecast that "a few years from now, we and other
companies could be serving ads and other content on
refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses and
watches, to name just a few possibilities."
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
companies also are likely to seek the data.
of motorists already voluntarily let such firms use
smart-car devices to check their driving, including
whether they speed or take violent turns. And with so
many other gadgets revealing every facet of how people
live, experts say, much of that information is bound to
get factored into health and home insurance, perhaps on
a mandatory basis.
that leads to healthier lifestyles and safer residences,
it will likely gain acceptance, said insurance
consultant Fred Cripe. Even so, he added, "As with
anything, there’s going to be some resistance."
experts fear the data gathered and shared by all these
computerized gadgets also could make it easier for the
government to spy on U.S. citizens. Despite the Fourth
Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and
laws that limit domestic snooping, civil rights groups
claim that police and other government agencies in
recent years have increased their monitoring of
Americans in the name of national security. And in a
speech two years ago, former CIA Director David Petraeus
predicted that the Internet of Things could have a
significant impact "on clandestine tradecraft"
by enabling "near-continuous, persistent monitoring
of virtually anywhere we choose."
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
didn’t say whether that might happen in the U.S. But
because of ambiguities in the law about who can see data
gathered by smart devices, experts say, conflicts over
access to the information could spark legal battles in
lot of this is going to have to be hashed out in the
courts," said James Quiggle of the Coalition
Against Insurance Fraud, whose members include police
and prosecutors. "This is huge. You’re talking
about Big Brother issues."
worry is that the technology could spark a surge in
crime. Many existing medical devices, cars and other
connected gear have been found vulnerable to hackers,
who already have caused numerous high-profile data
breaches. And as those devices multiply, experts fear,
so do the opportunities for cybercrooks to snatch
financial or other information belonging to vast numbers
risk is real," Mountain View security firm Symantec
recently reported, warning that "Internet of Things
devices will become access points for targeted
the technology is exploding, with research firm IDC
predicting that smart, Internet-linked objects will
number more than 200 billion and generate in excess of
$7 trillion in annual sales by 2020.
the early adopters is Tom Coates, a 42-year-old former
Yahoo technologist and co-founder of Product Club, which
develops inventions. He has filled his San Francisco
home with smart gadgets, including lights he activates
by phone, a video camera that lets him remotely watch
over his house, a bathroom scale that tweets his weight,
and sensors that warn of intruders and track the health
of his yucca plant.
Coates believes it’s prudent to be mindful of both the
good and bad that can result from the technology.
need to look at its benefits" while also making
sure to "look at the risks and minimize them,"
he said. "We have to be part of the process of
making the Internet of Things something that helps
people and saves lives without damaging human
STORY CAN END HERE)
are examples of Internet-of-Things devices that experts
fear might reveal personal data about their users:
TV: By recording what programs you watch, it could
reveal everything from your sexual preferences to your
robot: Its voice-activated feature might record and
disseminate to the Internet comments you make about your
friends, neighbors, boss and others.
refrigerator: Could show how much beer and wine you
drink, as well as your religious affiliation, if, for
example, you regularly buy kosher food.
security camera: May reveal who your friends are, what
you look like when undressed and even your sexual
fitness devices: Could report whether you are out of
heart or other health monitors: Possibly disclose all
your medial ailments
washing machine: By reading radio-frequency
identification tags sewn into your clothes, it might
disclose your waist-size, style of clothes you wear, and
if someone from the opposite sex lives with you.
vacuum: Could show how often you clean your carpets and
how grimy your house is.
smart meters: By recording the electricity use of
households, they could reveal when the residents get up
and go to bed, what types of electric devices they have
and which ones they’re using at any given moment.