Reuben Binns

Researching Personal Data

Reflections on an Open Internet of Things

Last weekend I attended the Open Internet of Things Assembly here in London. You can read more comprehensive accounts of the weekend here. The purpose was to collaboratively draft a set of recommendations/standards/criteria to establish what it takes to be ‘open’ in the emerging ‘Internet of Things’. This vague term describes an emerging reality where our bodies, homes, cities and environment bristle with devices and sensors interacting with each other over the internet.

A huge amount of data is currently collected through traditional internet use – searches, clicks, purchases. The proliferation of internet-connected objects envisaged by Internet-of-Things enthusiasts would make the current ‘data deluge’ seem insignificant by comparison.

At this stage, asking what an Internet of Things is for would be a bit like travelling back to 1990 to ask Tim Berners-Lee what the World Wide Web was ‘for’. It’s just not clear yet. Like the web, it probably has some great uses, and some not so great ones. And, like the web, much of its positive potential probably depends on it being ‘open’. This means that anyone can participate, both at the level of infrastructure – connecting ‘things’ to the internet, and at the level of data – utilising the flows of data that emerge from that infrastructure.

The final document we came up with which attempts to define what it takes to be ‘open’ in the internet of things is available here. A number of salient points arose for me over the course of the weekend.

When it comes to questions of rights, privacy and control, we can all agree that there is an important distinction to be made between personal and non-personal data. What also emerged over the weekend for me were the shades of grey between this apparently clear-cut distinction. Saturday morning’s discussions were divided into four categories – the body, the home, the city, and the environment – which I think are spread relatively evenly across the spectrum between personal and non-personal.

Some language emerged to describe these differences – notably, the idea of a ‘data subject’ as someone who the data is ‘about’. Whilst helpful, this term also points to further complexities. Data about one person at one time can later be mined or combined with other data sets to yield data about somebody else. I used to work at a start-up which analysed an individual’s phone call data to reveal insights into their productivity. We quickly realised that when it comes to interpersonal connections, data about you is inextricably linked to data about other people – and this gets worse the more data you have. This renders any straightforward analysis of personal vs. non-personal data inadequate.

During a session on privacy and control, we considered whether the right to individual anonymity in public data sets is technologically realistic. Cambridge computer scientist Ross Anderson‘s work concludes that absolute anonymity is impossible – datasets can always be mined and ‘triangulated’ with others to reveal individual identities. It is only possible to increase or decrease the costs of de-anonymisation. Perhaps the best that can be said is that it is incumbent on those who publicly publish data to make efforts to limit personal identification.

Unlike its current geographically-untethered incarnation, the internet of things will be bound to the physical spaces in which its ‘things’ are embedded. This means we need to reconsider the meaning of and distinction between public and private space. Adam Greenfield spoke of the need for a ‘jurisprudence of open public objects’. Who has stewardship over ‘things’ embedded in public spaces? Do owners of private property have exclusive jurisdiction over the operation of the ‘things’ embedded on it, or do the owners of the thing have some say? And do the ‘data subjects’, who may be distinct from the first two parties, have a say? Mark Lizar pointed out that under existing U.S. law, you can mount a CCTV camera on your roof, pointed at your neighbours back garden (but any footage you capture is not admissible in court). Situations like this are pretty rare right now but will be part and parcel of the internet of things.

I came away thinking that the internet of things will be both wonderful and terrible, but I’m hopeful that the good people involved in this event can tip the balance towards the former and away from the latter.

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