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Paving the way to the Internet of Things Andrew Wheen

Although the term ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) has been around since 1985, it is only in recent years that the concept has gained traction. Advances in fields such as big data, artificial intelligence, wireless communications and sensor technologies have driven widespread interest. It’s now time to look ahead to the potential value of the IoT, while planning for any problems that this new development could bring.

The IoT will see sensors, digital devices and other data sources linked via the internet to intelligent applications that monitor, interpret and respond to external events. New insights provided by these applications will make both natural and manmade systems more predictable, and this predictability will lead directly to more efficient operation and enhanced quality of service to end users.

What makes the prospect of the IoT so tantalising is its potential scale. Unlike the market for mobile phones – where the number of handsets must bear some relationship to the number of people – the Internet of Things faces fewer constraints. The average person in an urban environment can be surrounded by between 1000 to 5000 trackable objects. Worldwide, the number of networked devices will eventually be numbered in the trillions. Clearly, the opportunity for those able to find and add value to this interconnectivity is immense.

However, while the technology is moving rapidly, the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern the Internet of Things lag far behind. Some grey areas that need to be addressed include:

Liability

If an IoT application causes harm or damage, who is responsible? Does liability change if the IoT application has previously been hacked by a third party? We need clarity over the responsibilities of each party, and where blame lies if things go wrong. This will ensure that each party knows the risks and will take measures to mitigate them.

Data protection

Some IoT applications will hold data supplied directly by the consumer, or that has been gathered as a result of monitoring consumer behaviour. The ownership of this data may not always be clear, so data protection must be addressed.

Privacy

There must be safeguards to prevent data that has been collected for a perfectly legitimate purpose being re-analysed to extract new information in ways that are morally dubious and possibly illegal. As a simple example, installing smart electricity meters can be justified as an energy saving/carbon reduction initiative, but the data they provide can be used to extract a large amount of information about what people are doing inside their homes or offices.

Intellectual property rights

IoT applications will bring together a large number of different technologies containing intellectual property belonging to multiple parties. How will the ownership of this intellectual property be clarified and protected?

Regulation

How far should regulators go to improve IoT implementation by mandating the inclusion of specific product features that relate to safety and security? Would heavy-handed regulation stifle innovation in a vibrant new market, or should the general public be protected from evolving threats that few people really understand?

The issues listed above involve political choices that cannot be resolved by a standards body or an industry forum. Instead, they require an open and honest conversation within the industry and with the public, and it could be years before a consensus finally emerges. My advice to innovators in IoT systems is to avoid getting too far ahead of public opinion if they wish to roll-out applications that stray into legal or ethical grey areas.

Click here to download Internet of Things by Andrew Wheen, a white paper which provides an introduction to IoT, how it will evolve and potential uses and challenges of the technology.

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