As the appetite for big data increases, are citizens becoming little more than information-gathering sensors? Researcher Dr Rachel O’Dwyer explores the ethics and privacy concerns burdening the internet of things.
You Will Go to the Moon was published by children’s authors Ira and Mae Freeman in 1959, several years before the first moon landing. The illustrated children’s book tried to imagine a future of space exploration that has yet to come to pass. Space exploration eventually did happen, just not in the imaginary of a 1950s futurism with moon cars, dome-shaped houses and aluminium miniskirts.
The internet of things (IoT) is caught in a similar moment of suspension between wild imaginaries of connected futures (‘Your house will know when granny has had a stroke’) and an already pervasive reality that we don’t always recognise – maybe because it doesn’t quite look like Minority Report. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t already a reality and, even now, shaping key areas of our lives.
Many everyday objects are being redesigned to include sensors, actuators, computational intelligence and telecommunications capability. The OECD recently estimated that there will be as many as 25bn devices connected to the internet by 2020. This includes the personal devices we use to communicate, make purchases, and stay safe and healthy. It also includes many mundane objects in homes, workplaces, cities and the countryside.
The development of a network of interconnected physical objects with the ability to sense, respond and act on their environment, coupled to new forms of cloud storage and analytics, is producing an abundance of data. But what are the social and political implications of this ‘big data’?
While there are potentially positive applications such as improved healthcare and transport, the growth of the IoT and big data raises concerns about the governance and commercial business models being developed in several areas including public services, marketing, media and games, risk and insurance, and security.
While IoT is still an emergent field, we need to ask what this future will look like and what the broader political and economic implications are for citizens and users. Who are the key stakeholders in IoT? Who owns the data produced in the IoT ecosystem? What business models are emerging around the monetisation of data, advertising and credit and risk assessment? And what are the potential implications for citizens in relation to dataveillance, data discrimination, privacy and new forms of algorithmic governance driven by IoT data?
Dr Alison Powell from the London School of Economics has argued that IoT platforms will affect our capacity to speak, to listen and to be heard.
If public data is freely available and actionable then citizens can better see how resources are utilised, how decisions are made or even how public funds are allocated. IoT data might be used to ‘optimise’ public services like transport, water or energy making them run more efficiently.
On the other hand, scholars such as Jennifer Gabrys maintain that, in a big data society, “citizens become sensors”. ‘Participation’, in other words, becomes equated with data production rather than other meaningful forms of engagement. The internet of things, therefore, reduces our ability to act as citizens since, while users produce a lot of the big data, the process of responding or acting on this data becomes delegated to software.