Privacy and the Internet of Things

In light of a recent statement made by James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, it has been made apparent that United States government and intelligence agencies maintain a stranglehold on surveillant practices, despite use of encryption and recent backlash by citizens regarding government privacy infringements. As reported by the Guardian, Clapper confirmed that Internet of Things devices allow for surveillant practices by intelligence agencies.
“In the future, intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” explains James Clapper at his annual “assessment of threats” against the US (Guardian 2016).
This includes law enforcement agencies which have increasingly requested court orders which request companies to provide data collected from citizens. As noted by Trevor Timm, companies such as Fitbit and Dropcam, have been requested or have provided user data to legal authorities (Guardian 2016). What should be noted, is the type of information gathered by IoT devices, which fuels privacy concerns. Billions of IoT devices currently exist, “each of which are designed to harvest, store, and communicate a wealth of data” (Maras 2015:102). This data provides real-time information regarding a user’s “health and finances, locations, contacts, habits, behaviours, and activities” (Maras 2015:102) essentially mapping “patterns of life” (Amoore 2013:109). Very simply, the collected information by Internet of Things devices is, in effect, big data. Although never mentioned in any related literature as such, upon analyzing the content that the Internet of Things collects and comparing them to contemporary definitions of big data, distinct similarities can be drawn since data that is collected, “is more information than any individual human or group of humans can comprehend” (Andrejevic 2014:1675). Not to mention, several of these devices are vulnerable to hacking and other exploits.
As a result, a landscape has been created in which private information is constantly collected, stored, analyzed and monitored, as well as shared with a variety of other IoT devices, users and third parties (Maras 2015:102). Yet, users are potentially left without a full understanding of the implications of such a massive gathering of data. This excessive amount of data collection has raised several questions and concerns regarding privacy and surveillance. Users are not made aware of who benefits from this data, to whom this data is collected by, who it may be given to, when this data is collected and the potential outcomes of data collection. More than this, user profiling and targeting as well as social sorting are amongst other negative consequences of mass data gathering.
Although James Clapper’s statement is not a surprising revelation within the academic community, its importance lies in increasing public awareness regarding surveillant practices used by government and surveillance agencies. It brings to light how big data and IoT devices, which may provide many practical benefits, may, in some circumstances, be used to monitor citizens, and ultimately infringe on their privacy.
This results in a paradox where privacy and the Internet of Things cannot completely coexist (Wiseman 2013:8). There is a trade-off. In exchange for better, more feasible and more reliable services, a user must relinquish certain details about themselves. But, it must be reiterated that privacy is sacrificed in exchange for the tangible benefits offered by IoT devices. With this, a double edged sword is presented. With each incremental piece of information provided to Internet of Things devices and services, the better these services become. Yet, through this constant dissemination of private information, the more privacy is lost. Wiseman expresses how a technology which may not have initially been intended to pervade user privacy, may easily be reconfigured to ‘creep’ its users. “The purpose of the IoT to realize a smooth functioning information society may (also) turn into the perfect tool to realize a surveillance society” (Wiseman 2013:2). With such a vast amount of information, it is easy to understand how seemingly useful technology may actually be used as instruments for surveillance (Wiseman 2013:9).
IoT devices are starting to gain popularity as they begin to penetrate households, cities and various other aspects of day to day life. Thus, this public announcement by Clapper serves to inform citizens of the potential nefarious traits embodied in convenient gadgets.

Amoore, Louise 2013 ‘Security and the claim to privacy’ International Political Sociology8(2) 108-112
Andrejevic, Mark 2014. Big data, big questions “The Big Data Divide”. International Journal of Communication, 8(0):1673-1689

Maras 2015. “Internet of Things: Security and Privacy Implications” International Data Privacy Law 5(2):99-104

Timm, Trevor. 2016. “The government just admitted it will use smart home devices for spying” The Guardian Retrieved February 24, 2016 (

Wiseman, T.H.A. 2013. “Purpose and function creep by design: Transforming the face of surveillance through the Internet of Things”, European Journal of Law and Technology 4(2)


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