privacy2The right to privacy is something we take for granted. If we are in the comfort of our homes, on the phone to a relative or friend or simply sending an email from a personal account, we expect that no one is prying, listening in on our conversation or reading what we wrote.

Our exposure to the online world has shrunk the limits of privacy beyond recognition. Social media has allowed us to be ‘known’ and ‘visible’ to a much wider audience. Yet this has also chipped away at the right to privacy. Every piece of information, every image and every message we circulate online gives others an insight into our lives, our habits, our interests and beliefs. We are often shocked to read that recruiters go through candidates’ online profiles before inviting them to an interview: how dare they?!

But in posting pictures of a boozy party and looking all but sober, that individual has given up part of his or her right to privacy. Serves them right, you may say. The same measure can also be applied to those posting ‘selfies’, another craze to grip a population that walks around with a camera in their pocket almost every  minute of the day. Granted, but we are often missing the point that in today’s society, a good part of which is lived online or via phone or gadget, privacy is something that we have unwittingly given up as well.

So it’s not really surprising that a recent survey by GFI found that six in 10 respondents would remove all their personal information from the Internet at the snap of a finger, if they could. Bit too late now … but we’re all the wiser afterwards. Given that we could, will removing ALL our data that is online make a difference and strengthen our right to privacy?

I don’t think so. I actually believe that privacy is going to be subject to the limitations that others set in place (hopefully) and not to our wishes.

According to Gartner, the Internet of Things (IoT), which excludes PCs, tablets and smartphones, will grow to 26 billion units installed in 2020. This means that everything from your fridge and popcorn machine, to your car, the shower head and who knows what will be invented by 2020, will be connected to the Internet or be able to receive/transmit some form of data.

Now while that sounds really cool – there are refrigerators that automatically send you a shopping list when you’re running low on stuff – it does raise some privacy implications.

If all these devices, 26 billion of them, are going to be collecting data and sending it out, just imagine the volume of data that could be analyzed by vendors. While the data may be collected in aggregate, they know full well where that device was sold and most likely the location of that device. Now isn’t that cool data to have?

Maybe, but as a consumer would I want my fridge, for example, to be trackable and traceable? What’s going to stop the vendor from utilizing the data for my neighborhood and selling it to a supermarket chain? X households in area Y consume Z liters of milk. With the pace of development of these ‘Internet of Things’ items, I would not be surprised that the owner of the fridge in question will receive an advert from the store inviting me to try a new brand of milk.

We’re also seeing a lot of issues being raised because companies are sniffing data via smartphones and using that data to target customers. While the data is in aggregate form, it is still usable. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Fan Zhang, the owner of Happy Child, a trendy Asian restaurant in downtown Toronto, knows that 170 of his customers went clubbing in November. He knows that 250 went to the gym that month, and that 216 came in from Yorkville, an upscale neighborhood. And he gleans this information without his customers’ knowledge, or ever asking them a single question.”

How? By using analytics provided by a company that uses sensors, as small as a pack of cards, to follow signals emitted from Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones. And the customers (that is us!) are oblivious to what is going on. And while it is not illegal (since no personal data is actually collected), it borders on a breach of one’s right, as an individual, to go to the gym, supermarket or wherever, without being tracked all the time. You can turn off Wi-Fi, but don’t we have the right to browse whenever we want without being tracked?

Add to the mix the concern that these devices can be hacked, yes, hacked, and you start a serious discussion on security. And we’re not talking fantasy here. Over the weekend, the media reported that a refrigerator and television sets were hacked to attack businesses. It’s being billed as the first “cyberattack of the Internet of Things”.

Imagine having eight to 10 devices in your household or in use by the family from which data can be collected, tracked, sniffed, call it whatever you like … how does that make you feel?

The phone rings and it’s your local white goods dealer. “Good morning Sir, we’ve just received a notice that your bread toaster is due for a service. Shall we send someone round?”

With the Internet of Things, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched! You may bolt the door, bar the windows and lower the blinds, but is it still ‘Bye-bye, privacy’?