Data Privacy and the Internet of Things

iStock_000044457776Small (1) Earlier this month (August 2014) Offcom announced that UK adults spend an average of eight hours and 41 minutes a day on media devices – which compares with an average night’s sleep of eight hours and 21 minutes …

I have to admit to being something of a science fiction fan and it seems to me that our own world has some interesting parallels with that created by E M Forster in his short novel, The Machine Stops.

The setting is a world where humans live in isolation in underground cells, and where everything is provided by the global “Machine” – music, art, literature, conversation, education, knowledge, interaction with other humans, food, religion, medicine – truly everything that humankind allegedly requires. In Forster’s world, travel is available, but unpopular and treated with suspicion. The physically strong are culled at birth. The weak survive.  When the Machine breaks down, the humans – its subjects – perish, leaving the only hope for the human race with those who had previously escaped the underground world and made their way to the surface to live outside the Machine’s jurisdiction.

In our own world, we have the internet, social media, online music, art, and the ability to educate, work and communicate, both personally and in business, from a distance.

And, of course, we have the Internet of Things, which is currently generating a great deal of interest and discussion, and which brings us ever closer to Forster’s world.

What is the Internet of Things?

The answer lies in the name, though it’s worth mentioning that “Things” include people.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????In a nutshell, we are living in a world where broadband is an ubiquitous fact of life, technology is moving faster and faster – and becoming increasingly less expensive, and more and more devices are being created with wifi capability and sensors – from smartphones to fridges,  remote household heating systems to tumble-dryers, razors to kettles, and TVs to wearable devices.

According to Gartner (a Connecticut-based IT research and advisory company) by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices.  With an assumed 8 billion people on the planet in the same year, that’s an average of over 3 ¼ ‘smart’ devices per man, woman and child!

For example, LG has developed a fridge that has a camera which allows owners to see what food is inside.  It scans items as they’re added, tracks expiry dates and recommends recipes based on the food available. The owner can also programme Body Mass Index (BMI) and weight loss targets.  Using smart TV and voice recognition technology, the fridge can see who is opening the door, recommend a recipe … and even in future turn on the oven to the right temperature if you choose that recipe!

It’s intended that this fridge will link with online food shopping services so that it can restock itself when supplies run low.  The fridge’s data will all be accessible to the owner vie smartphone, tablet or PCF so the owner can stay in control. (If you like the idea, the fridge is scheduled to be on sale in the UK later this year for around £2,000.)

RFID Tags and Security Issues

There is no doubt that the opportunity for automated household management may be appealing and is possibly unavoidable in the future.   And there are many other potential uses too, including tracking wildlife, chipping pets (and even humans), providing access to a person’s medical records, and monitoring our medical conditions to notify us of drugs and dosages to be taken.  We already have RFID technology in our passports, our travel passes, even our clothes (though primarily for stock control reasons rather than intended tracking).

But privacy is a real concern.  Given the sensitivity of some of the data to be collected, it is alarming to read that the default security settings on these devices are often very weak, making it straightforward for hackers to break into devices.  This has been amply demonstrated already:

‘Smart’ Devices Send out Spam emails …

Between December 23rd 2013 and January 6th 2014, about 750,000 spam messages were sent out by smart gadgets.  The malware involved was able to instal itself on a range of kitchen appliances, home media systems and web-connected televisions.  It was able to do so because the gadgets had not been set up securely, used default passwords, and the owners were unaware of the potential for security issues – if they even knew the devices carried RFID tags.

Privacy and Security

Data Compliant Cloud considerationsBusinesses must be mindful of the consumer’s privacy and security when they develop products that can gather and share data about what they, their owners, and other, linked “smart” products do.  This new technology will be collecting private, and sometimes deeply personal and sensitive data about the owners who may be wearing the technology or installing it in their homes.

Currently it seems that companies are storing data from these smart devices onto the cloud, without necessarily informing the consumer or giving them a choice.  Even with the antiquated Data Protection legislation currently in place, if such data would allow individuals associated with that data to be personally identified, that must be a breach of the DPA.

There’s no doubt that becoming compliant and secure in the RFID environment will be much simpler for businesses if they start the process at the very beginning of the technological developments.  They would also be well advised to make their compliance and security solutions scalable to avoid significant problems in the future.

The EU Directive on the Protection of Personal Data states that a person must freely give specific consent and be informed before their personal information is processed.  EU Member States are required to ensure confidentiality of communications by prohibiting unlawful interception and surveillance of personal information unless consent has been provided.

This suggests that using RFID chips unleashes serious privacy implications.  To remain compliant with EU data protection legislation, organisations should make it absolutely clear that:

  • The merchandise includes RFID tags
  • Whether the user’s data will be will be collected and stored by the organisation
  • What data will be collected
  • How the data will be used


EU RFID Technical Standards

RFD-Blue-1bAt the end of July, the European Commission has put out a series of recommendations to protect consumers from privacy risks associated with RFID chips.  Viviane Reding, former EU Commissioner said: “While smart chips working with RFID technology can make businesses more efficient and better organised, I am convinced they will only be welcomed in Europe if they are used by the consumers and not on the consumers. No European should carry a chip in one of their possessions without being informed precisely what they are used for, with the choice of removing or switching it off at any time. The ‘Internet of Things’ will only work if it is accepted by the people.”

Privacy Impact Assessments

While the sentiment is admirable, it has, until now, been difficult to see quite how it is enforceable.  A good starting point, however, is that an RFID Privacy Impact Assessment has been agreed, which should ensure data protection within current EU privacy regulations.

rfid logo


In the meantime, the European Commission’s new RFID logo has been developed for items that include RFID tags so that individuals will know that they are carrying items that can be tracked – eg Oyster cards, fashion items, wearable technology and so on.   Unfortunately the scheme is voluntary, which means that businesses are not obliged to use the logos.

The Future

RFID items are increasingly widespread and popular – the technology is cheap and efficient, retailers find it enormously helpful from a stock control perspective, consumers find it useful.  It will be fascinating to see how the development of RFID products impacts on our lives, our privacy and our security.  Perhaps we’re not so very far away from the world envisioned by EM Forster back in 1909 – long before the internet and all its trimmings were in place.

As Shakespeare so tellingly put it:  “O brave new world that has such people in’t”

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