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What the ‘smart’ revolution means for your personal data

A cursory look at the quality of discourse on Twitter and Facebook might lead you to believe that the world is becoming an increasingly dumb place. While this might be true (and there’s plenty of argument on social media about that very point), there’s no escaping the fact that technology is getting smarter.

Consider the meteoric rise of devices. The IoT device industry is expected to grow by 285%  over the next five years. By 2020, according to Juniper Research, there will be 38.5 billion devices connecting people to the world around us. The question we now need to keep asking ourselves is what are the long-term implications of this trend?

First, let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of the current smart device market. This is no mean feat given that a new device or concept is released almost daily. From a bikini that tells the wearer when to apply more sunscreen to pills with ingestible sensors that’ll make a colonoscopy a more pleasant experience, practically every sector is becoming ‘smarter’.

Many would be familiar with Google Glass, autonomous vehicles, the Apple Watch and home gadgets from Nest. However, were you aware that you can now track your cat’s water intake with the Pura, buy your teen a Jewelbot friendship bracelet that links up to their social media profile and other Jewelbot users, and understand your state of mind through PND wearables which scan brain waves to gather information on the wearer’s mood?

Even rhinos are getting the smart treatment, with anti-poaching teams kitting them out with GPS technology, heart rate monitors and a camera in their horns. A smart rhino will be a safer rhino.

Our lives are becoming increasingly linked and integrated with technology and as new devices come to market, this symbiotic relationship will grow. There’s no escaping the fact that to leverage smart devices effectively we need to be willing to part with personal data.

This changes the debate in privacy and our interactions with technology. While we will enjoy the benefits of knowing more about ourselves, taking control of our wellbeing (and that of the aforementioned cats and rhinos) and pay without fumbling for a card, we also open the door to a world where organisations and governments can monitor and view our lives on a monumental scale.

Although this will bring many benefits, such as accurate health data from fitness trackers that a council could use to plan health provisions, or a company monitoring the stress levels of its employees to improve morale, the data we provide could be used for something altogether more sinister.

Imagine a scenario where an organisation can tell through a person’s behavioural patterns that their relationship is in trouble, thereby triggering a load of emails from an Ashley Madison-esque company advertising their services. Mind you, considering how hit and miss a lot of marketers’ targeting still is in 2015, think about the impact of a scenario when that targeting is off the mark, too.

Equally, it begs some difficult ethical questions when you consider what a company should do if it knows from UV and air quality sensors that you are at a high chance of developing cancer within the next year. Should that company tell you, or let you live in blissful ignorance? What if that company is your health insurance provider who then refuses to renew your policy?

Another issue data ownership. If you produce data does it belong to yourself or the company whose device you are using? What if that data is sold on to a third party?

It is essential that in the midst of this innovation and invention of new smart devices, we do not forget to draw clear ethical lines. A large scale misuse of data will invoke a public backlash that could tarnish the sector’s reputation and hold back further innovation. It will be important that strong security measures are put in place to protect consumers’ data as well as clear guidelines over the use of that information. People should be made aware of what data they are handing over and be given the choice to opt out of certain services – facial recognition programs in stores for instance.

Finally, what can we expect in the future? Just as the MiniDisc pre-dated iPods and later iPhones, I expect that we are only on the tip of a large smart device-iceberg. Innovations are likely to come thick and fast, and soon our homes will be fitted with smart devices as standard. Estate agents will sell high spec homes on the desirability of their smart appliances as opposed to their white goods. These devices will communicate with us via our personal wearables and will eventually be combined into one or two major devices which will interact with the entire ‘internet of things’.

Eventually, no facet of our lives will be lived without smart devices. We will rely on them to help us socialise with others, pay for our latte, track our wellbeing and environment, unlock our properties and drive our cars. In doing so, we will release a stream of data in our wake, ready to be pored over by opportunistic businesses.

Smart devices will give us an incentive to improve our lives and environments. The devices will tell us what we can do better, whether that’s eating less fat or spending less. We will be able to live smarter lives. To what extent that impacts on our privacy is yet to be determined.