Behavioral, Legal, Political Issues of Internet of Things

Engineers almost always focus their attention solely to the technical aspects of a problem. The Internet of Things (IoT) is certainly a complicated and fascinating topic to address. Advances so far indicate that we will be able to successfully implement all of the functions predicted for the next dozen years or so. Looking at the possible results we see a fascinating environment. If it were possible to adapt humans to the wonders of technology in a positive manner, the world would certainly be better.

But reality says that instead humans adapt technology to their own interest, not the other way around.

Intelligent Traffic

One of the cars I drive frequently is a 2014 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. A state of the art car that offers advanced capabilities. The car not only parallel parks itself, but when in cruise mode, it knows about the surrounding vehicles and the lane in which it is. It keeps in the lane automatically, it keeps proper distance to the car in front, it forces the driver to signal before changing lanes, it adjusts speed according to the traffic ahead, regardless of the value set by the driver. In other words it reduces speed if the traffic moves at a speed that is lower than the one set. Of course it knows where it is and can communicate with Lincoln offices at any time, as long as a cell phone is present and active in the car.

The step between this functionality and total communication with other vehicles nearby and in fact with the intelligent road itself is not that long. It can be done, we have the technology. But we do not have the human side of things, at all. First of all, people, at least in the 3 States I have lived in (California, Colorado, and Florida), take speed limits as advisory, and take significant pleasure in overtaking. The frustration of being in a vehicle that drives itself will be high, the inability to tailgate may result in irrational behavior. In addition, the legal implications of having one's vehicle controlled by "big brother" are significant. People already resist electronically monitored speed and traffic lights. Red light cameras are quite controversial here in Florida right now, for example.

The result is that I believe cars will be smarter sooner than their drivers.

The Integrated House

Same arguments can be made for and against the Integrated House. Once the house is fully independent in setting temperatures, lights usage, security concerns, and other parameters, the behavior of its inhabitants will be far less private than now. From data collected from the local IoT it will be easy to determine behavior, both social and financial of its inhabitants. Utilities will know precisely how much one spends to cool or heat the house and which rooms consume the most energy. In other words it will be possible to know with great accuracy how a family lives.

Knowing Everything

By combining credit card use information with the travel information from the car one can determine when one travels, where one goes, how much it spends at destination or on the road, and what type of purchases are made at the locations. The behavior of a society, and of course of an individual, will be analyzed for marketing as well as social reasons. Is this society ready for the tradeoff? Can we accept the benefits of IoT capabilities in exchange for what some people would define as less freedom? Privacy and freedom are often thought of as the same in western culture. Personally I do not care if Lincoln knows where the car goes. The information is mundane and in my opinion boring. But other people might feel different.

So before we engineers become completely enamored with the quick implementation of IoT capabilities, we should consider the social and security implications. How secure is the information transmitted through the IoT? Who and how can eavesdrop? What rules exist regarding the elaboration of data obtained through legal means? And what are these "means"?