The Internet of Things: Ethical and Social Concerns

January 2019 Pulse 

Imagine that your humble refrigerator is able to replenish your food supply by taking stock of individual items and ordering them directly from the supermarket. And imagine that your smart fridge is able to monitor your diet and purchase only the foods that are good for your health.

Now imagine that the computer in your home is able to track your whereabouts by GPS on your mobile phone. It can turn on the light and air conditioners in your house as you are parking the car, and unlock the front door as you approach it.

Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things (IoT)!

IoT may be described as an integrated ecosystem where there is an increasing cyber-physical-biological interconnectivity, linking devices, systems, data and people. According to Andrew Whitmore et al., ‘The core concept is that everyday objects can be equipped with identifying, sensing, networking and processing capabilities that will allow them to communicate with one another and with other devices and services over the Internet to achieve some useful objective’.

Pundits believe that IoT can increase efficiency, create opportunities and respond to a variety of needs. IoT, it is said, can empower people through technology, and technology through intelligence. Other commentators, reflecting on its potential impact, have gone so far as to argue that IoT must not be seen only as the Internet of ‘things’. It will eventually become the Internet of ‘mind, body and soul’ – the Internet of ‘behaviour’ and even of ‘life’.

The size of the IoT is projected to be immense. Some commentators estimate that by 2020, there will be 20-50 billion things connected as part of IoT, and that 1.7 trillion U.S. Dollars will be invested in these technologies. This has led Tim O’Reilly to predict that ‘This wave of technology has more chances of reimagining swathes of the world than anything we’ve seen before. This is really going to disrupt everything’.

How will this emerging technological phenomenon – which is part and parcel of the Information Revolution – affect society? How will it change the way we live, and the way we relate to one another? What are the ethical concerns surrounding this integration that promises to blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres?

Safety

One of the main issues surrounding IoT is safety. By assembling an ecosystem of integrated sensors, processors and actuators we have in fact created what Adam Henschke has called a ‘network of vulnerability’. An incalculable number of things could happen that would result in serious (in some cases, very serious) consequences.

For example, the Internet connection may slow down at a particular point, suddenly shutting off critical life supporting devices. Or take self-driving cars, which are expected to be a common feature on our roads in the near future. The crashing of an IoT system can result in physical car crashes and loss of lives.

People with criminal intent can also exploit this vulnerability. Henschke describes a hypothetical case where a malicious actor exploits the vulnerability in the phone to manipulate linked devices, like the car. He then locks children in the car on a hot day until ransom is paid.

Privacy

The second issue associated with IoT has to do with privacy. The problem of online privacy has been with us since the beginning of the Internet and Social Media Revolution. But IoT greatly accentuates the problem because it creates such an informationally rich environment that governing it and protecting the privacy of its users will be very challenging, if not impossible.

In addition, IoT is organised in such a way that seemingly innocuous data can carry the personal information of users. As Henschke explains:

‘… what the IoT represents is not just a vast capacity to collect and store information on people, but the capacity for that information to be aggregated, analysed, and communicated to people far beyond those receiving the initial information. This means that increasingly intimate elements of our lives can be revealed by the collection of seemingly innocuous data’.

It is not difficult to see how such data can be misused and exploited.

Security

The third issue is security. The smart devices that are in the market today already pose the challenge of informational security. For example, strangers can easily access the camera in our smart phones remotely. In a similar way, hackers can access personal information in our phones and computers. The security mechanisms that come with these devices often provide inadequate protection.

IoT will predictably sharpen the tension between individual privacy and the use of personal information. Existing privacy laws have shown themselves not only to be difficult to interpret but also challenging to enforce. As IoT technologies become more pervasive and intrusive, privacy protection will become ever more challenging. As Francine Berman and Vinton Cerf put it, ‘personal information will become more valuable to a diverse set of actors that include organizations, individuals, and autonomous systems with the capacity to make decision about you’.

To compound the problem, the information that is variously obtained can be reused. As Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite point out, ‘Information doesn’t wear out. It [can] be endlessly recycled [and] repackaged’. To return to the example of the smart fridge, information about your shopping and eating habits obtained from it can be used to target advertising.

Some have called for an IoT ‘Bill of Rights’ that gives users the basic right to op out or delete data. But even if they have these rights and the know-how to remove the data, they may be able to do so. According to Berman’s and Cerf’s realistic assessment, ‘it may be infeasible or impossible for an individual to control all the data generated about them by IoT systems’.

Informed Consent

Related to the problem of the reusability of data is that of informed consent. According to the principle of informed consent, the source of the information must be informed about who is using that information, where they are using it, and what for. His consent must then be obtained before the information can be used.

But, as Henschke has pointed out, ‘given the range of devices, the networks that arise between devices and the potential for multiple users are so vast that prediction is close to impossible’. And if it is impossible for suppliers of the products and services to predict the full range of the uses of the source’s information, then obtaining the source’s informed consent will also be quite impossible.

Accountability

Another important consideration related to the proliferation of autonomous systems is accountability.

A good example is the autonomous vehicle, which is required to make many decisions without human assistance as it navigates traffic. We may expect automobile companies to take responsibility for faulty engines or brakes. But who should be held accountable when an autonomous vehicle is involved in a serious accident that caused fatalities?

To be sure, this question relates to other kinds of autonomous or semi-autonomous entities, such as robots programmed to function with minimal human supervision or control. But as Berman and Cerf have rightly argued, ‘As systems take on more decisions previously made by humans, it will be increasingly challenging to create a framework for responsibility and accountability’.

Impact on Society

The question about how IoT will impact and change human self-understanding and sociality has not been sufficiently explored thus far. IoT has the potential to reshape human abilities and capacities beyond existing forms of ‘enabling technologies’, and in ways that we are unable to clearly foresee. In IoT, the challenges of the control of technological processes and the ramifications of actions mediated by technology are magnified.

As the European Commission’s (EC) report puts it:

‘In IoT the traditional modern construction of the subject – the subject of knowledge and the moral subject –, still pervading most current ethical and legal concepts, has to confront the complexities of the duty to know in context where knowledge can be limited, as well as the hybridized interactions between subjects and objects, agents and actors (object behaving subject-like)’.

Finally, when IoT becomes pervasive in society, it will introduce a division (a ‘digital divide’) and inequality in society. Those who are knowledgeable and skilled will be empowered to master the new technologies and take advantage of them to the fullest. They are able to choose which technologies they wish to use, protect themselves from abuses and opt-out from certain services and networks. But as the EC report points out: ‘Those who cannot keep the pace with the pervasiveness will progressively become deskilled, disempowered and unknowledgeable’.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.