Connected trouble

Sunil Abraham

The internet of things phenomenon is based on a paradigm shift from thinking of the internet merely as a means to connect individuals, corporations and other institutions to an internet where all devices in (insulin pumps and pacemakers), on (wearable technology) and around (domestic appliances and vehicles) humans beings are connected. Proponents of IoT are clear that the network effects, efficiency gains, and scientific and technological progress unlocked would be unprecedented, much like the internet itself.

Privacy and security are two sides of the same coin―you cannot have one without the other. The age of IoT is going to be less secure thanks to big data. Globally accepted privacy principles articulated in privacy and data protection laws across the world are in conflict with the big data ideology. As a consequence, the age of internet of things is going to be less stable, secure and resilient. Three privacy principles are violated by most IoT products and services.

Data minimisation

According to this privacy principle, the less the personal information about the data subject that is collected and stored by the data controller, the more the data subject's right to privacy is protected. But, big data by definition requires more volume, more variety and more velocity and IoT products usually collect a lot of data, thereby multiplying risk.

Purpose limitation

This privacy principle is a consequence of the data minimisation principle. If only the bare minimum of personal information is collected, then it can only be put to a limited number of uses. But, going beyond that would harm the data subject. IoT innovators and entrepreneurs are trying to rapidly increase features, efficiency gains and convenience. Therefore, they don't know what future purposes their technology will be put to tomorrow and, again by definition, resist the principle of purpose limitation.

Privacy by design

Data protection regulation required that products and services be secure and protect privacy by design and not as a superficial afterthought. IoT products are increasingly being built by startups that are disrupting markets and taking down large technology incumbents. The trouble, however, is that most of these startups do not have sufficient internal security expertise and in their tearing hurry to take products to the market, many IoT products may not be comprehensively tested or audited from a privacy perspective.

There are other cyber security principles and internet design principles that are disregarded by the IoT phenomenon, further compromising security and privacy of users.


Most of the network effects that IoT products contribute to require centralisation of data collected from users and their devices. For instance, if users of a wearable physical activity tracker would like to use gamification to keep each other motivated during exercise, the vendor of that device has to collect and store information about all its users. Since some users always wear them, they become highly granular stores of data that can also be used to inflict privacy harms.

Decentralisation was a key design principle when the internet was first built. The argument was that you can never take down a decentralised network by bombing any of the nodes. Unfortunately, because of the rise of internet monopolies like Google, the age of cloud computing, and the success of social media giants, the internet is increasingly becoming centralised and, therefore, is much more fragile than it used be. IoT is going to make this worse.


The more complex a particular technology is, the more fragile and vulnerable it is. This is not necessarily true but is usually the case given that more complex technology needs more quality control, more testing and more fixes. IoT technology raises complexity exponentially because the devices that are being connected are complex themselves and were not originally engineered to be connected to the internet. The networks they constitute are nothing like the internet which till now consisted of clients, web servers, chat servers, file servers and database servers, usually quite removed from the physical world. Compromised IoT devices, on the other hand, could be used to inflict direct harm on life and property.

Death of the air gap

The things that will be connected to the internet were previously separated from the internet through the means of an air gap. This kept them secure but also less useful and usable. In other words, the very act of connecting devices that were previously unconnected will expose them to a range of attacks. Security and privacy related laws, standards, audits and enforcement measures are the best way to address these potential pitfalls. Governments, privacy commissioners and data protections authorities across the world need to act so that the privacy of people and the security of our information society are protected.

Abraham is executive director at Centre for Internet and Society.

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Topics : #opinion | #technology

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