Addressing the Challenges of the Internet of Things: An EU Perspective

Recent news that smart fridge software was hacked to send out spam is the latest example of the ineluctable opportunities and challenges presented by the Internet of Things (IoT).

The intrusiveness of IoT technologies and their potential to collect unlimited amounts of data on users’ daily habits brings with it serious privacy concerns. As European regulators grapple with the challenges and complexities of formulating a technology-neutral Data Protection Regulation, the difficulties of applying “traditional” concepts such as consent, purpose limitation, transparency, data deletion, accountability and security to the data processing activities carried out by an “Internet-ready” kitchen appliance become readily apparent.

Using this example, questions around identifying the data controller, obtaining individual consent and adopting a suitable privacy policy become much more challenging.

So what’s the solution?

Well, Europe’s recent experiences in formulating and implementing the consent rules on cookies remind us of what can happen when you attempt to rigidly apply traditional privacy concepts to a technology that relies on the collection and free-flow of data. Quite frankly, long-winded privacy notices and consent boxes become obsolete in a world where you have billions of devices generating overwhelming amounts of data. Consumers neither have the time nor inclination to read these things.

The answers lie instead in a balanced approach to regulation. The IoT represents the next evolutionary stage of this global communication medium—and as a result, privacy and security public policy must also evolve too. The starting point is to recognise that data has become a fundamental necessity to how we all live and work, regardless of whether we are a consumer, business or regulator.

The creation of vast amounts of data that are a consequence of the IoT puts pressure on existing data privacy concepts. For example, data protection laws in the EU are based on the fundamental concept that users should be in control of their personal data. However, as we continue to generate more and more data in our daily lives, there is increasing recognition that not only will we never be in complete control over how our data is used but that our control is actually receding.

The use of consent is becoming increasingly impractical and best reserved for those instances where the use of our data can be readily explained by a simple notice and our consent is truly meaningful.

Not convinced?

Take “just-in-time” disclosures in the mobile space, for example. This practice ignores the long-winded—and some would say valueless—practice of having users trawl through verbose privacy policies on their mobile devices after downloading apps and hitting the “I Agree” button in order to provide their consent.

That does not mean that fundamental concepts such as notice and transparency cannot also remain. Indeed, they become even more important as we enter this new Internet Age.

As my colleague Phil Lee, CIPP/E, CIPM, has already pointed out, the key lies in the provision of accessible information. Essentially, the generation of more and more data will mandate the need for information innovators: those skilled at providing the essential information about the use of data to individuals at a particular point in time. Think about the key information that individuals need to know about data collected across their devices such as spatial or location data and the eventual development of “privacy symbols” that explain the uses of personal data and become almost as recognisable and universal as those symbols that illustrate the washing and drying instructions on our clothes.

That being said, challenges lie ahead.

The lightning pace of technological development will further drive data volumes and consequently innovation in the way businesses value and use data. Therefore, how do we address the impact that this will have on traditional privacy concepts such as proportionality and purpose limitation so as to avoid 'function creep'?

Again, we can look to the development of existing solutions: Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) and Privacy by Design—provided they are implemented correctly—offer enough flexibility to consider and accommodate future privacy developments in such projects.

Another massive area will be in data security.

Society has and will continue to become increasingly dependent on technology for all those essential things that we used to do manually—turning on the heating, writing a shopping list or even calling each of your friends on a landline to arrange to meet for a drink—by the way, how did we ever manage to do the latter in the days before mobile devices and Facebook??

This increasing reliance on technology also increases the consequences when things go wrong—and they inevitably will at some point.

Therefore, whether it be new encryption techniques or biometric security technology, each will also have a massive role to play in protecting data. Through existing concepts such as Binding Safe Processor Rules, service providers are already having to up their game to show that they have sufficient technical and organisational measures in place to earn that “safe” accredited status to safeguard their clients’ data. However, even further onus shall be placed on these parties as the hunger for technological innovation and data develops.

Whilst the age-old issues around addressing traditional EU privacy concepts will remain, regulators, privacy professionals and service providers will have to stay in tune with rapid technological developments that create new twists on traditional privacy problems.

I recently read an article where a respected futurologist and business psychologist said, “The world will divide into those who understand technology and those who don’t.” This definitely applies to those of us fortunate enough to be working in the IoT sphere. Only next time, we might be dealing with a rogue toaster inadvertently executing a malware attack rather than an employee-issued laptop...

Written By

Brian Davidson, CIPP/E


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  • Name Mar 24, 2014

    Interesting post Brian. Who would have thought 5 years ago that we would have to worry about the data our kitchen appliances may be sending and receiving? Seems like the law is always playing catch up with technology and the area of privacy law is no certainly no exception.


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