Commentary

FTC To Examine Whether 'Internet Of Things' Poses Privacy Concerns

The so-called “Internet of Things” has drawn the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which recently announced plans to hold a workshop examining privacy and security issues surrounding the concept.

Some consumer advocates say the FTC's move isn't coming a moment too soon.

Broadly speaking, the Internet of Things refers to the ability of devices -- ranging from cars to smartphones to household appliances -- to connect with each other via the Web. “In the not too distant future, consumers approaching a grocery store might receive messages from their refrigerator reminding them that they are running out of milk,” the FTC said when describing the upcoming workshop.

Even though the FTC is speculating about a time in the future, some privacy advocates say that time could come a lot sooner than people think.

“Far from a science-fiction plot in which the machines, for good or ill, collectively assert their free will, the IP connectivity that is at the heart of the 'Internet of Things' is well established -- and increasingly monetized -- in the mobile marketplace,” the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy says in comments filed with the FTC on June 1.

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“Relatively few household appliances or medical devices today have been imbedded with IP addresses, it is true. But the advertising-driven data collection system that will one day undergird such connectivity ... is well established.”

The CDD says that the Internet of Things -- combined with mobile marketing techniques and marketers' growing reliance on Big Data (or data about Web users collected across sites and platforms) -- “places consumer privacy at greater risk than ever before.”

The groups specifically calls for more safeguards regarding financial and health-related online transactions, among others.

On the other hand, not everyone thinks the Internet of Things requires any governmental action at this time. “Policymakers should exercise restraint and avoid the impulse to regulate before serious harms are demonstrated,” George Mason University's Adam Thierer argues in his comments. “All new technologies and innovations involve risk and the chance for mistakes, but experimentation yields wisdom and progress. A precautionary principle for the Internet of Things, by contrast, would limit those learning opportunities and stifle progress and prosperity as a result,” Thierer says.

Meanwhile, the think tank Future of Privacy Forum says in its comments that some sort of privacy protections are needed, but that any requirements should be based on broad principles.

“Care must be taken not to impose new modes of regulation on technologies simply because they are used in the Internet of Things,” the group says in its comments. The think tank adds that the Internet of Things “will continue to make beneficial uses of data possible, but only if practical privacy protections are in place to help promote consumer trust.”

“If there are lax controls and insufficient oversight over the collection of personal information through connected devices, consumers will lose trust in the evolving technologies,” the Future of Privacy Forum argues.

The FTC's workshop will take place on Nov. 21.

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