While the IoT gets personal, what happens with the data?

While the IoT gets personal, what happens with the data?

It seems that it is now possible to connect almost anything, and monitor or measure almost anything. At the recent IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona, a key message was that the value of IoT is not just in the connectedness but in the value of that data and the interpretation of that data. We asked Adrian Caceres, CTO, VP engineering & co-founder of Ayla Networks, who was on a European roadshow, to give his verdict on one aspect of this – what happens to the data, who owns it, and do we have any control over it? His thoughts follow.

From our heartbeats to our genomes, anything about our bodies that can be measured can generate data. As the Internet of Things (IoT) kicks into high gear, vast networks of connected devices can receive and share sensor-enabled data. Many of these devices fall into the realm of health or medical care, ushering in a new era of personalized health care.

The promise of personalized health care is that each person can be treated for the precise conditions actually present in their particular bodies, rather than based on statistical or demographic projections. It’s easy to imagine how such a personalized approach could have a profound effect on our individual health and well-being.

But stopping at the human individual level, or at health or medical care alone, misses the full potential of the IoT and the data generated by its connected devices. The real impacts will be felt at the family, community, societal and global levels—and in all areas of life, not just human health. 

IoT data and the feedback it enables can transform how we care for elderly family members, help us become more efficient in our use of energy resources, and inform personal and policy decisions about everything from the food we eat, to how we move from place to place, to the kinds of activities we pursue in work and play.

Still, with connected devices generating data about everything from our location and pulse rates to our purchasing habits and water usage, the question quickly becomes, who owns and controls the data? Who gets to decide? What are the implications of deciding wrong—and the opportunities revealed by deciding right?

The classical approach to data ownership, in the pre-IoT world, has been to ask for user permission, through either opt-in or opt-out strategies. But in a world where the everyday objects surrounding us are sensor-enabled and interconnected, at what point is the concept of user permission even relevant?

Everyone is inadvertently giving permission to use their data

Permission to use data is becoming implicit. For instance, our increasingly smart cities have connected video cameras on businesses, banks, traffic lights, and public spaces. It’s possible to track a person as he or she moves through the city. Everyone in the city is giving permission for their images to be captured on video, whether they know it or not.

Personal health data provides an ideal example of the implications of these shifts in data control. By U.S. law, for example, all medical practitioners must scrupulously protect an individual’s health data. Strict regulations are in place to control who has access to what kind of medical information about an individual.

During this year’s Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) scare, airports in Asia used infrared thermometers that monitored passengers getting off planes and passing into the terminal. Individuals detected to be running a fever were detoured to an infirmary for further medical evaluation.

Now, imagine if those temperature sensors were connected IoT devices, and if they could also screen individuals for additional communicable diseases, signs of drug use or intoxication, or other conditions. How is the idea of individual privacy of medical data balanced with public health priorities?

And back to the idea of personalized health care: even if you actively decide to find out details of your physical condition, if the devices used to gather the health data are connected to the IoT, should you be able to determine what information is shared and what remains private? What about the health data generated by your FitBit? What happens if you are being treated for one condition, but IoT-enabled medical devices detect another, completely different condition? Are medical personnel monitoring the devices compelled to act on the new data, regardless of your preferences?

When you know something, you can’t unknow it. That’s the challenging side of all the exciting IoT advances that hold so much promise for us as individuals and societies. Sensor-enabled, connected IoT devices are proliferating. Vast amounts of data are being generated and shared. It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle. But can we talk about whether there’s some data we’d like to remain personal, and if so, how to make that happen? 

Adrian Caceres is passionate about connected products and has made connectivity the core of his professional career. As co-founder, of Ayla Networks, he’s helping to shape the future of the Internet of Things (IoT). Adrian came from Amazon’s Lab126, where he was the technical lead for the Kindle wireless software team and helped launch the first Kindle with Wi-Fi. He holds a B.S. in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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