As a society, we have seen remarkable advances in the way we communicate and interact over the last 20 years.  Information and communications technology (ICT) continue to evolve not just in the virtual world, but also in the physical world. In this new landscape, we are witnessing physical objects merging into the digital information infrastructure. For example, physical objects such as door locks and medical devices are linked by IP-based networks and transmit information about themselves and their observations. The evolution of communications to include physical objects has implications across a wide range of applications and segments of society, including new challenges for security and privacy.

Known informally as the Internet of Things (IOT) by many and less commonly as proactive technological infrastructure by some, this evolving landscape includes smart devices that gather data and applications that perform statistical data mining on data to anticipate human behavior. This instantiation of the IOT introduces the following ethical quandaries:

  • Is it possible to avoid the IOT? As we move around our daily lives, should we assume that our lives and/or behavior are being monitored at all times?
  • Does the IOT constitute the ultimate utilitarian approach to society? Are we monitoring the lives, or specific aspects of lives, of everyone to reduce risk to each of us?

We knowingly, and sometimes unknowingly, interact with the IOT on a daily basis in both our professional and personal lives. Many organizations are implementing IOT devices to help with decision-making, resource allocation, and operations. As organizations use technology to move to an “always on” environment, users become part of the information infrastructure through the use of their personal mobile devices for applications such as corporate email (thus extending corporate policies onto personal devices). In essence, users become nodes on the IOT.

Today, internet advertisers are able to combine data from various seemingly insignificant activities to create potentially significant profiles. This correlated data allows advertisers to send users targeted advertising as they search the internet for that “must-have” new gadget or the latest song. In fact, targeted web-based ads based on correlated user profiles derived from statistical models are just the first generation of anticipatory services. Data mining will only become more accurate over time at determining our desires and needs.

Many people today wear sensors when they work out or move through their daily lives to track their heart rate, miles traveled, or steps taken. These activity monitor sensors are connected wirelessly to smart phones and to the internet to enable users to track metrics over time. Fitbit, Inc. states the following about the Fitbit One product:

During the day, it tracks your steps, distance, calories burned, and stairs climbed. Come nightfall, it measures your sleep quality, helps you learn how to sleep better, and wakes you in the morning. The One™ motivates you to reach your goals by bringing greater fitness into your life – seamlessly, socially, 24 hours a day.

Consider the following scenario: Depending on the privacy policy in place, a user’s fitness information is sold to marketers who have an agreement with her mobile phone provider to share data.  She might be shopping in the supermarket and start receiving coupons via text messages or email (since her phone’s geo-location services are enabled) offering 10 percent off the latest weight-loss shake because “it appears you are trying to lose weight and we can help.”  In effect, the IOT is anticipating what she might want to buy based on metrics and her behavior.  She may welcome this opportunity to save money on something she hadn’t considered purchasing, for others though, such benign invasiveness is a concern.

As far back as 1993, Mark Weiser noted in his article titled “Some Computer Science Issues in Ubiquitous Computer,” that the idea of locational privacy “could be much worse in ubiquitous computing with its more extensive use of cellular wireless. So a key problem with ubiquitous computing is preserving privacy of location.”

As a society, we invariably have our cell phones with us, thus enabling ubiquitous computing. Our cell phone and other smart devices collect data about our activities and location that can be combined to present greater insight and useful information. The key is informed consent by users to make sure they clearly understand where the data they are generating is going and what is being done with it.

Now that we know we are being monitored in a variety of ways, both voluntarily and involuntarily, is the IOT fostering a utilitarian approach to society? Utilitarianism is the ethical construct based on outcomes of maximum utility. This means that that societies or individuals should make decisions that result in the greatest good for everyone. Other potential ethical frameworks include the Virtue Ethics Approach that centers on making decisions based on community-based norms and how one’s decisions are perceived by the community; the Fairness Approach where decisions or actions are reviewed as to how well they distribute both the burdens and the profits of a decision; and the Common Good Approach where decisions or actions are based on the pursuit of common values and goals for the community.  Amongst the ethical frameworks, the IOT generates the most concern under a utilitarian approach.

One theory is that the IOT will provide predictive capability by catering to our inferred preferences, capabilities, or health-risks even before we become aware of them.  For example, as a society is constantly monitored for its vital signs, is it simply becoming data points to insurance companies? Care is required to ensure that by using the IOT to gain a variety of benefits, society is not arguing that the health of the aggregate population is the greatest good possible and of more importance that the right of the individuals privacy, i.e. the core of the utilitarian argument.

Not everyone is enamored with the idea of evaluating the IOT against solely an ethical framework. Trying to find a set of common ethical points may be too difficult to accomplish due to the variety of stakeholders involved across not only business and industry, but also across nations.

Given the IOT business benefits such as streamlined operations and micro-targeted advertising, it appears IOT is unavoidable. Currently, the best protection is to ensure that individuals understand agreement terms of their devices. As for the examination of the IOT’s utilitarian nature, caution should be exercised to allow for some level of risk tasking in modern life.  Just because something is good for the aggregate does not necessarily mean it is good for the individual. As the IOT continues to grow, we will repeatedly see these ethical questions raised and new ones developing.