The Shifting Line between Privacy and Convenience in the IoT Era

By Haley DeLeon

What is your privacy worth? Discounts at your favorite clothing store? The convenience of cranking up your home’s air conditioning unit while you’re still at the office?

Sure, Americans may be OK with trading their private data for tangible gains, but they are not as happy about what happens to that information after it has been collected, new research shows. Overall, a discomfort with sharing location data, a disdain for online ads, a distrust of security and a desire for more detailed information are central concerns.

The Pew Research Center report found that there is not a clear line between what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to privacy and information sharing. While most survey participants are fine with having surveillance cameras in the workplace or using a website to share health information with their doctor, they aren’t so keen on installing a smart thermostat that tracks their movements at home or the prospect of advertisers tapping into their social profiles.

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This balancing act between privacy and convenience has been heightened by the emergence of the Internet of Things, with more and more of our everyday devices now connected via the Internet, whether it’s our minivan, our fitness band or our big-screen TV.

By 2020, Cisco estimates, there will be 50 billion connected devices worldwide. Additionally, more than half of major new business processes and systems will incorporate the Internet of Things (IoT) by decade’s end, according to new projections by Gartner, a global IT research firm.

Trading Data for Discounts

The Pew Research Center report illustrates how Americans are making case-by-case judgments when it comes to their willingness to divulge personal information or accept intrusive technology.
For example, 54% of respondents considered the use of surveillance cameras in the workplace to be acceptable. Many said companies have the right to install cameras on their property and noted that cameras would increase security for workers. Others, however, believed the practice to be too intrusive and expressed uncertainty as to how surveillance footage would be used.

Similarly, a slight majority of survey participants (52%) were comfortable with allowing their doctor’s office to use a health information website if it makes it convenient to access personal health information and schedule appointments. But that acceptance is contingent upon who could access the data, as well as the security of the website.

The survey found greater reluctance when it comes to sharing personal information with advertisers. Just one-third of respondents were willing to receive targeted ads in exchange for access to a free social media site, citing concerns over security and the prospect of annoying ads.

Pew respondents also were concerned about the use of smart thermostats in the home. Market research firm Parks Associates reported that by 2017, more than half of home thermostats will have “smart” features, including sensors that capture data about movement to help homeowners cut their energy bills.

That these digital devices can collect and share information about a person’s home activities left 55% of respondents uncomfortable; people considered that an invasion of privacy that could make them an easier target for burglars.

While 47% of Pew respondents were OK with sharing details about their shopping habits in order to qualify for discounts or perks as part a store loyalty program, many first wanted to know how much money they would save. They also wanted details on the type of retailer and which third parties might have access to their personal information.

There was less enthusiasm for trading personal data for savings on auto insurance: 45% of respondents said placing a monitoring device in their vehicle to track speed, location and other factors wasn’t worth the prospect of insurance discounts. Indeed, some worried that their driving habits would lead to a rate hike.

Emerging Security Threats

Given the massive volumes of data generated and consumed by the Internet of Things, the line between privacy and convenience will likely shift as new security threats emerge, and Americans continue to weigh the pros and cons of sharing information about their daily lives.

“A black market for fake or corrupted sensor and video data means that data can be compromised or substituted with inaccurate or deliberately manipulated data,” Gartner Vice President Ted Friedman said in a January 2016 news release.

Meanwhile, federal regulators have issued a series of recommended measures to fortify IoT devices against infiltration by hackers, unscrupulous marketers and other third parties.

“The only way for the Internet of Things to reach its full potential for innovation is with the trust of American consumers,” Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez has said.


Haley DeLeon writes about cybersecurity and information technology on behalf of Florida Tech’s 100% online graduate degree programs.