Paul Gilster: Why you should keep an eye on the ‘Internet of Things’

Better keep an eye on the “Internet of Things.” It’s more than just jargon: We’re talking about putting network connectivity into everything from thermostats to toasters, from refrigerators to vacuum cleaners.

Market research firm Gartner points out that as our homes get “smarter” – meaning more digitized and connected – the number of Net-enabled objects worldwide will grow to a staggering 26 billion by 2020.

That’s a factor of 30 over 2009’s numbers, and a sign that there is big money in connecting objects, allowing not just surprisingly useful information at your fingertips but a new venue for marketers to extract your personal information.

Your connected refrigerator can send you a text when you’re out of pistachio ice cream, or even add it to the grocery list on your phone. But wouldn’t it be helpful for companies to know your eating habits so they can hit you with targeted advertising?

Just how and to whom are all these devices connecting?

Your guess is as good as mine. I regularly bash the amount of technology being stuffed into our cars, believing it to be a distraction from the huge responsibility of driving safely. But we’re an impatient population that hates to be deprived of its connections.

I can’t deny how useful a GPS can be, but do I really need WiFi to check my email on the road? And if I do, what kind of hacking opportunities does that open up for the people interested in identity theft?

The product is you

Ponder this: A recent report from Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., notes that most automakers are “unaware of or unable to report on past hacking incidents,” while security measures to prevent hacking of automobiles are inconsistent and haphazard. We’ll be hearing more about this.

We keep making the same tradeoff we have been making since entering the Internet era.

To use a free service, we hand off information, slowly at first, but after a time, as a matter of course. We get a freebie (think Facebook), but big companies get to learn all about us. As the adage goes, when you can’t figure out what the product is, the product is you.

Samsung has just created a stir by offering voice recognition on new televisions.

The problem is Samsung’s statement that if you say something that might be sensitive or personal, “that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.” It’s a feature you can turn on or off, but better check to see that the little microphone icon isn’t on before you start saying bad things about your in-laws.

Privacy concerns

Samsung’s TVs may or may not turn out to be a problem, but the larger point is that Net-connected objects of the kind heading for us at the speed of digital marketing are capable of offloading information about us to third-party servers for analysis.

Maybe you’ve bought a smart thermostat that can ease the management of your home environment. There’s a lot of information in your settings that marketers might find helpful. Where exactly is the information going, who has access and how secure is it?

We’ll be asking these questions about more and more devices.

One smart device may not tell anyone a great deal. A whole network of smart devices can capture patterns of personal behavior and consumer preferences. Other things to think about: The more connected devices we have, the more a Net outage can affect our daily lives.

And the more information being gathered, the greater the enticement for hackers.

We need standards to help us see where this is going, standards involving privacy and explicit declaration from vendors about where our data go and who is analyzing the database. Are authentication and encryption enough to persuade us that the Internet of Things will be free from privacy infringement or data abuse?

We’ve seen this before – the technology is evolving far faster than the oversight, and we’re still handing over privacy with few second thoughts.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at