22 April 2013

Time for debate about the societal impact of the Internet of Things

Jeremy CrumpDespite the growing ubiquity and connectivity of the consumer devices and other objects that make up the "Internet of Things", very little is understood about the likely social impacts of the technology. Jeremy Crump is chair of the BCS Internet of Things working group and a Director at Cisco Systems. In February 2013 he chaired a joint BCS-OII seminar on the societal impact of the Internet of Things with Ian Brown (OII); a summary of the contributions is published on the BCS website.

European conference on the Internet of Things

The 2nd Annual Internet of Things Europe 2010: A Roadmap for Europe, 2010. Image by Pierre Metivier.

On 17 April 2013, the US Federal Trade Commission published a call for inputs on the ‘consumer privacy and security issues posed by the growing connectivity of consumer devices, such as cars, appliances, and medical devices’, in other words, about the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) on the everyday lives of citizens. The call is in large part one for information to establish what the current state of technology development is and how it will develop, but it also looks for views on how privacy risks should be weighed against potential societal benefits.

There’s a lot that’s not very new about the IoT. Embedded computing, sensor networks and machine to machine communications have been around a long time. Mark Weiser was developing the concept of ubiquitous computing (and prototyping it) at Xerox PARC in 1990.  Many of the big ideas in the IoT — smart cars, smart homes, wearable computing — are already envisaged in works such as Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, which was published in 1995 before the mass popularisation of the internet itself. The term ‘Internet of Things’ has been around since at least 1999. What is new is the speed with which technological change has made these ideas implementable on a societal scale. The FTC’s interest reflects a growing awareness of the potential significance of the IoT, and the need for public debate about its adoption.

As the cost and size of devices falls and network access becomes ubiquitous, it is evident that not only major industries but whole areas of consumption, public service and domestic life will be capable of being transformed. The number of connected devices is likely to grow fast in the next few years. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that while a family with two teenagers may have 10 devices connected to the internet, in 2022 this may well grow to 50 or more. Across the OECD area the number of connected devices in households may rise from an estimated 1.7 billion today to 14 billion by 2022. Programmes such as smart cities, smart transport and smart metering will begin to have their effect soon. In other countries, notably in China and Korea, whole new cities are being built around smart infrastructuregiving technology companies the opportunity to develop models that could be implemented subsequently in Western economies.

Businesses and governments alike see this as an opportunity for new investment both as a basis for new employment and growth and for the more efficient use of existing resources. The UK Government is funding a strand of work under the auspices of the Technology Strategy Board on the IoT, and the IoT is one of five themes that are the subject of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)’s consultation on the UK’s Digital Economy Strategy (alongside big data, cloud computing, smart cities, and eCommerce).

The enormous quantity of information that will be produced will provide further opportunities for collecting and analysing big data. There is consequently an emerging agenda about privacy, transparency and accountability. There are challenges too to the way we understand and can manage the complexity of interacting systems that will underpin critical social infrastructure.

The FTC is not alone in looking to open public debate about these issues. In February, the OII and BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT) ran a joint seminar to help the BCS’s consideration about how it should fulfil its public education and lobbying role in this area. A summary of the contributions is published on the BCS website.

The debate at the seminar was wide ranging. There was no doubt that the train has left the station as far as this next phase of the Internet is concerned. The scale of major corporate investment, government encouragement and entrepreneurial enthusiasm are not to be deflected. In many sectors of the economy there are already changes that are being felt already by consumers or will be soon enough. Smart metering, smart grid, and transport automation (including cars) are all examples. A lot of the discussion focused on risk. In a society which places high value on audit and accountability, it is perhaps unsurprising that early implementations have often been in using sensors and tags to track processes and monitor activity. This is especially attractive in industrial structures that have high degrees of subcontracting.

Wider societal risks were also discussed. As for the FTC, the privacy agenda is salient. There is real concern that the assumptions which underlie the data protection regimeespecially its reliance on data minimisationwill not be adequate to protect individuals in an era of ubiquitous data. Nor is it clear that the UK’s regulatorthe Information Commissionerwill be equipped to deal with the volume of potential business. Alongside privacy, there is also concern for security and the protection of critical infrastructure. The growth of reliance on the IoT will make cybersecurity significant in many new ways. There are issues too about complexity and the unforeseenand arguably unforeseeableconsequences of the interactions between complex, large, distributed systems acting in real time, and with consequences that go very directly to the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

There are great opportunities and a pressing need for social research into the IoT. The data about social impacts has been limited hitherto given the relatively few systems deployed. This will change rapidly. As Governments consult and bodies like the BCS seek to advise, it’s very desirable that public debate about privacy and security, access and governance, take place on the basis of real evidence and sound analysis.


Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Policy and Internet Blog, nor of the Oxford Internet Institute.