Privacy In The Time Of 'Internet Of Things'

The "Internet of Things" (IoT) is the new darling of the technology world thanks to our love of being tethered to our electronic devices. Watches, fridges and even dog collars are connected to the internet these days and these devices are generating an unrelenting wave of data. This has inevitably led to some privacy concerns over how the data is collected and used. How is one of the world's biggest cloud companies dealing with this IoT conundrum? We find out.

Internet of things picture from Shutterstock

Whack a chip in and make it connect to the internet. It's so easy to create a connected device these days. So much so that there's a whole Tumblr page dedicated to whacky IoT devices (most of which are hilarious and redundant) and technology vendors are all on board. Wearables is a category that is on the up and up with the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Lenovo all investing in it. According to research firm Gartner, there will be in excesss of 26 billion internet-connected devices by 2020, so that's a lot of data that will be generated from these suckers.

The data that is created is used to improve the way these connected devices work for users but also to help companies that receive the data to understand their customers better so they can can provide better quality services and products in the future. At least these are the nominal objectives. I'm not saying these organisations are using the data (usually non-personally identifiable information) in a nefarious way, but we do have to consider the privacy implications of IoT. Considering there are enough of us up in arms about things like Australia's metadata laws, the issues of maintaining privacy in amid the IoT explosion is a pertinent one to address.

Most recently, Salesforce announced the IoT Cloud, a platform that allows its customers to draw information from a variety of sources including device, sensor, and publically available data feeds and gain insights from them to make better business decisions. This is an area that Salesforce is enthusiastic about and the point of IoT Cloud is to make using connected devices more accessible for businesses.

We raised the issue of IoT privacy with Salesforce regional vice-president for platforms and services in Asia-Pacific, Robert Wickham, who believes consumers are fine with connected devices taking in their data because they are getting something in return.

"There is a covenant emerging between customers and companies," he told Lifehacker Australia. "If I opt in, I'm give them my data in exchange for something valuable. If that covenant is breached, I will opt out."

Opting in could be as simple as buying a connected device. Opting out could be when you discontinue the use of that device. Easier said than done given that more and more consumer items are being given the IoT treatment.

So does the benefits outweigh the matter of privacy?

"Right now customer expectations are changing rapidly and we are seeing a number of existing brands pivot to respond," Wickham said. "Customers want companies to know who they are. They want to call up a contact centre, go into a retail outlet and shop online and have businesses know who they are and what their preferences are."

He does caveat that companies can't just go collecting and using data from IoT devices willy nilly. One key factor to addressing this privacy quagmire is by giving customers control.

"Let me opt in and opt out. Let me change the nature of tthe relationship. Let me add more as I build trust and credibility and see value from your brand," Wickham said. "Take Uber for example. I give them a lot of information such as my credit card details, my location as well as my preferences and in exchange for that I get a high quality, frictionless service - this really transforms the driver-passenger relationship.

"At any point in time if that is violated and I'm probably going to opt out of Uber and use another service."

The applications of connected devices are boundless and it's an exciting technology field to be watching. Let's not forget beyond consumer products. IoT is also being used in factories to monitor and control machinery that create the goods we use on in our daily lives, in hospitals to check the health of patients, among other things. It is making life more convenient and we shouldn't be afraid of technological progress, but in an age where we are so used to freely giving away information about ourselves online, we mustn't forget to exercise caution when it comes to protecting our privacy.

What are your views on privacy in the age of IoT? Let us know in the comments.

Spandas Lui travelled as a guest to Dreamforce 2015 in San Francisco as a guest of Salesforce.


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