'Internet of Things' to consider with new privacy laws

By Riane Lenzner-White

Editor’s note: The following article was written for an Ebert Fellowship in memory of the late Roger Ebert. The fellowship works with the forthcoming Roger Ebert Center at the College of Media. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips advises the Ebert fellows.

At this very moment, the phone in your pocket is gathering massive amounts of data. But the legal lines that dictate what can be done with that information are blurred at best.

Technology is advancing at a rate that is grossly disproportionate to government regulation, and if that doesn’t bother you, it should. This poses an array of ethical and logistical dilemmas that people and corporations will eventually be forced to confront. And that day of reckoning will likely come before we’re ready.

Thursday’s lecture on the Internet of Things at Research Park during The Pygmalion Festival discussed how putting sensors in more devices has revolutionized the way companies interact with customers and get product feedback.

Led by Jed Taylor, director of operations at the Technology Entrepreneur Center, the small panel represented three companies: Petronics, a small tech start-up; W. W. Grainger, an e-commerce Amazon competitor; and Ameren Company. These companies represent a remarkable era in technology and innovation. But if we are wise, we will treat the Information Age with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Geoff Westphal, the director of intellectual property at W.W. Grainger repeated over and over that we “can’t know what we don’t know.” With these words, Westphal summed up the internet’s greatest strength and Achille’s heel. When the internet first emerged in the mid-’90s, we never fathomed in just two decades we’d be carrying it around with us in our pockets. Westphal said that, because of this, we need to keep an open mind to technology.

But keeping an open mind does not mean we should ignore the widening gap between technological innovation and government regulation. Privacy laws vary country to country, and there are massive regulatory gray areas that need to be addressed, especially with respect to consumers’ personal information.

As Americans, we have an implied right to privacy under the First Amendment. But what does privacy look like in the Information Age? Westphal points out that the IoT has brought about a fundamental change in the way we define privacy.

“I think there is a whole generation right now of millennials who don’t have any problem putting their life on Facebook, and I think that may be a changing philosophy for humankind is, ‘What do you get if you give up privacy?’”

The problem with this though is the average Facebook user probably doesn’t have an adequate idea of how much data they generate. This brings up the fundamental question of who is responsible for protecting data, companies or the people they serve?

The more sensor-equipped products that are available, the more customer data that is available to companies. In a way, it seems that the Internet of Things has almost made the customer a middle-man in the modern market. This has allowed for companies to get better product feedback and improve quality of service with little effort on the consumer’s part.

Ameren’s shift from analog meters to digital Smart Meters has caused an infinitesimal increase in the company’s data collection.

Ameren Site Manager, Owen Doyle said, “We used to take one data point per customer per month when they came out and read your meter. Now we’re getting one data point every fifteen minutes from every customer … and the Smart Meters are actually capable of taking six to ten data points every fifteen minutes.”

The switch to Smart Meters lets customers track their energy usage in real time and helps Ameren isolate issues in the grid more easily, so they can more effectively serve their customers. However, this growing data mine raises a lot of questions for technically unsavvy people like me. Right off the bat, where is all this data going, what information does it reveal and what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands?

In an age where technological innovation so heavily defines who we are as nations and individual people, developers have a responsibility to their consumers to keep making new products. By the same token, innovation should be driven by solutions and not by satisfying fleeting technological trends.

“Is it cool, or does it actually make things easier?” is the question Doyle said we need to be asking.

“If it’s cool, it’ll only last a short amount of time. If it makes things easier, you’ll actually adopt it as part of your lifestyle,” he said.

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