Internet of 'things' demands rethink of business ethics

Expert panel suggests that businesses need to start thinking about privacy implications much earlier in the process.

NEW YORK -- Plenty has been written recently about the privacy implications of the technologies that are becoming a ubiquitous part of our lives, especially the idea that the rising generation of teenagers and 20-somethings -- the so-called Generation Y -- doesn't have the same sense of the term as their parents, grandparents and older coworkers.

A panel discussion during last week's BSR Conference 2010, "Protecting Privacy in the Age of Global Communications," suggested that businesses need to take a more ethical and proactive stance toward the issues in the absence of government leadership on the issue. This is especially true of the so-called "Internet of things" that will express itself in all manner of "smart" technology solutions such as smart building control and energy systems, smart transportation options and (yes) the smart grid, according to the panel participants.

Increasingly, privacy is about control, the panelists suggested. About how you control data about you and your habits, and about how businesses control that information.

Will DeVries, policy counsel for Google and one of the panelists, suggested that Generation Y actually more closely manages their information than many people think. "Young people want to share more, but they are taking extraordinary measures to control how it is shared," he says. "What do you think of as privacy? Most people are actually more concerned with identify theft and hacking of computers."

Harriet Pearson, vice president, security counsel and chief privacy officer of IBM, says it isn't just the sheer amount of information that is creating new privacy challenges, it is the fact that you can now glean incredible insight from sensors and other other instrumentation technologies and that you can share that data very easily. "Privacy by design needs to be baked into these solutions from the beginning of the process," Pearson says.

In the absence of government regulations around privacy -- with the notable exception of those that have cropped up around healthcare organizations and electronic medical records -- Pearson says companies need to move proactively to develop strong policies. "There need to be ethics around analytics," Pearson says.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a Bernard Schwartz Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation, who is writing a book about the digital privacy topic, suggests that businesses haven't spent enough time thinking about how information collected by smart buildings or smart cars or even smart refrigerators could be used for purposes that infringe in some way on freedom.

Who's to say, for example, that an authoritarian government won't use the information collected by a smart car to track and locate dissidents, she notes. Many of the same technologies used for smart building energy systems, MacKinnon adds, are used in surveillance applications and there need to be clear guidelines developed. That is not something that should be overlooked or ignored.

Google's DeVries said many of the questions raised around privacy that are fielded by his team have to do with concerns over how technology could be used as part of an oppressive regime. Google's evolving policies in China are a great example of the sorts of challenges businesses could face in the age of a smarter planet. As smart cities move from pilot into reality, transparency will be paramount and the individual needs to understand the implications of that transparency.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com