Thanks to the so-called Internet of Things, you can turn on an air conditioner with an app, count calories with a smartwatch, and track your baby's temperature through sensors knitted into onesies.
But all of these technological advancements raise fresh privacy and security concerns, too.
Passcode, the Monitor’s soon-to-launch section on security and privacy, partnered with the Center for Data Innovation in Washington on Thursday for an event that explored the evolution of the Internet of Things. The event, "How can policymakers build the Internet of Things?,” featured members of Congress and representatives from companies such as Nest Labs and Toyota.
These were some key takeaways:
The Internet of Things is a second chance for cybersecurity
“Nobody built in, for the Internet we have today, consideration for those risks or dangers that we’re now trying to reverse engineer,” said Alan Roth, senior executive vice president for the US Telecom Association. Now that the Internet of Things is on its way, Roth said, “we’ve got a little bit of opportunity to engineer into the system we’re about to create [ways to] deal with those issues for security and privacy.”
That doesn’t mean the government should start regulating emerging technologies, said Roth. But voluntary collaboration between federal agencies and industry can be helpful, he said. That ways, said Roth, in two decades people won't be saying, "We forgot to think about those things from the outset.”
Striking the right privacy balance
After the devastating tsunami in Japan in 2011, the government asked car companies to activate GPS tracking on vehicles as part of its disaster response, said Hilary Cain, Toyota’s director of technology and innovation policy. The data showed where cars were turning around, signaling which roadways were blocked — so the government could tell people about safer routes.
“We wouldn’t do that in the United States in a million years because of the heightened sensitivity around privacy,” said Cain. Privacy is important, she added, but sometimes the public “hysteria” can be counterproductive.
Internet of Things data will be valuable for public research
Companies should be compelled to share the information they collect with the customers they collect it from, and other third parties who might be able to use the data for the public good, said Chris Irwin, the department of Energy’s coordinator for smart grid standards and interoperability. “The data is not meant to be … held captive in order to preserve a customer relationship,” he said.
Data from individual household devices could be tremendously valuable when taken in a large enough sample. For instance, data from Nest’s smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in people’s homes can help cities detect their baseline levels of carbon monoxide, added Vineet Shahani, Nest Lab’s head of commercial and product legal.
Members of Congress call for action in next session
Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, said it’s “entirely appropriate” for the US government to think about how to modernize its regulatory frameworks, and overhaul obsolete rules. “We’re destined to lose to the Chinese or others, if the Internet of Things is governed in the US by rules that predate our VCRs,” said Senator Fischer.
New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte urged caution on regulation: “A top-down, preemptive approach is never the best policy, and I think will only serve to stifle innovation,” said Senator Ayotte. The best approach, she said, is to let technology evolve naturally in this dynamic environment.
Not all Internet-connected things are equal
Wi-Fi enabled airplane engines, for instance, will require different government standards than home appliances, said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. And the speed of innovation is sure to outpace the legislative process. The biggest challenge, though, may be that Congress will take the lead on regulating a topic with which the public is not familiar enough to lobby their representation, he said. “The thing about the Internet of things,” Schatz lamented, “is that nobody's heard of it.”