Future networked society raises privacy concerns

Imagine things like doorknobs, toasters and light bulbs communicating with one another in a network that far exceeds anything we know today. The concept, often referred to as ubiquitous computing, isn’t new. What’s new is that technologies are now emerging to make it happen sooner than many of us imagine.

That is the key message of a report ‘The Internet of Things’, which was presented recently at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia.

While ubiquitous computing – as a concept – seems attractive, in practice it may spawn some real challenges.

One of these has to do with its potential impact on privacy.

Ubiquitous computing technologies may not necessarily be good for society, in general, according to David Fewer, staff counsel for the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), a public interest advocacy group based in Ottawa.

For one, Fewer said, the ability of such technologies to gather and record information on people could potentially compromise a citizen’s expectation of and right to privacy.

“Privacy and anonymity have values in and to themselves. There are lots of reasons why we should be concerned about ubiquitous surveillance and the disappearance of private activities in a networked world,” he said.

In such a networked world – says the WSIS report – four key technologies will enable ubiquitous network connectivity: RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, sensor, embedded intelligence and nanotechnology.

Some of these technologies have very practical uses.

For instance, clothes embedded with chips will communicate with sensor-equipped washing machines about colors and their suitable washing temperatures, and bags will remind their owners they have forgotten something.

The result will be billions of new Internet “users” in the form of objects that will push humans into the minority as generators and receivers of Net traffic.

“There are challenges, such as standards and governance of these resources, but we’re moving toward a world in which the many things around us will soon be communicating with each other without any interaction from us,” said Lara Srivastava, telecommunications policy analyst at the International Telecommunication Union, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Machine-to-machine communication, already happening today, will gain substantial traction over the next few years, said Srivastava, who presented the report at a news conference in Tunis.

At a panel discussion, MIT Media Lab Chairman Nicholas Negroponte spoke of his vision of an entirely new networked world, far more ubiquitous than the network of computers that we now have linked to the Internet. “Things will play an important role in the Internet themselves,” Negroponte said. “The future is a meshed network of things. Objects will speak to other objects via other objects.”

A big advantage of a meshed network, according to Negroponte, is that all these connected, embedded devices can co-operate and help each other. “Failure won’t be as binary,” he said.

A similar view is held by Jonathan Murray, vice-president and chief technology officer of Microsoft Corp.’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) region. “Software will make these devices smart and able to communicate end to end,” he said. “In this new world, it’s not about personal computing but about community computing and sharing information.”

Fewer’s views on the privacy implications of a networked society were echoed by one technology expert.

While acknowledging all the benefits ubiquitous computing could offer, John Gage, chief researcher and director of the science office at Sun Microsystems Inc., warned of “the very deep implications” of this new world. He pointed to the ability of technology to gather increasingly more information about us.

“Every Google search you do is retained forever,” Gage said. “And look at how RFID tags can track your location. When identity and location structures overlap, we’re no longer anonymous.”

A big concern, according to Gage, is that certain groups, like the police, are inclined to want to know everything. “So privacy, get over it; we’re going to become a different kind of society.”

Governance could also be a challenge in such a massive peer-to-peer network, Gage said.

CIPPIC’s Fewer pointed out that government will have to play a vital role in ensuring these new technologies are not misused and do not infringe on an individual’s right to privacy.

“At the end of the day, somebody is responsible for directing that technology to act in a certain way. When people behave in ways that are abusive of our privacy and civil liberties, it’s the government’s responsibility to step in and set limits on what kind of behaviour is acceptable,” he said.

– With files from Mari-Len De Guzman

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