No one elected the ‘Internet of Things’ to serve citizens

Public sector organizations worldwide are showing interest in sensor-based networks and systems, but are they ready to deal with the potential privacy challenges associated with the concept?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is no longer just an idea in the public sector. According to one tech industry analyst, the concept has become a reality for a number of government organizations—and it has introduced some thorny legal and ethical issues.

IoT describes technologies that enable web-connected objects to communicate with each other and perform specific tasks. In health care, for example, wearable electronic monitors measure an individual’s vital signs. Another set of sensors tracks movement in the patient’s room. If the monitors record a sudden increase in blood pressure or decrease in heart rate, or movement patterns that suggest the individual has fallen down, the sensors trigger an ambulance call.

Massimiliano Claps, research director at IDC, says governments around the world have embraced IoT. He points out that the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research uses prediction software and real-time location data to automate aerial collision avoidance. Municipalities including Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia put sensors on waste bins to detect rubbish levels and optimize trash collection routes. Border officials in Hong Kong employ GPS, RFID and chemical sensors to maintain security and minimize manual inspections.

Although IoT isn’t mature in all fields, “across a range of usage scenarios there are clear indications that IoT is making a sustainable impact,” Claps says, adding that decreasing prices for the underlying technology help drive implementations.

Privacy concerns

While IoT enables organizations to automate various tasks, it also introduces various pitfalls. For instance, at what point does IoT cross the line between helpful and invasive? “From a legal perspective, the deployment of RFID tags in personal devices, clothes, medicines, groceries and so forth potentially enables a surveillance mechanism that would infringe privacy,” Claps says.

Consider that objects in an IoT system could contain personal information. This point informs the European Union’s discussion on new data protection regulations, Claps says. Legislators must ensure the rules cover information saved not only on computer servers and USB sticks, but also in the IoT.

The City of Seattle recently wrestled with a privacy challenge stemming from an IoT project. Amid citizen concerns, the municipality killed a program wherein police used unmanned helicopters to help patrol the streets.

IoT’s legal and ethical ramifications can’t be ignored. Eventually, governments will have to engage in “vigorous cultural and ethical debates about the values of privacy, openness, transparency and democracy,” Claps says. “This will be particularly challenging given the global nature of IoT.” Different countries have different attitudes about privacy and data literacy, yet IoT knows no borders, he explains.

These challenges shouldn’t stop public-sector organizations from evaluating IoT. But the potential ethical and societal issues should give rise to plenty of debate among governments and within the communications-technology industry about how to develop IoT so it’s more helpful than harmful.


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