The most important thing in the Internet of Things should be you — Julian Ranger interview Part 2

Putting individuals in control of their own data will be better for them, better for businesses, and better for the Internet of Things

Connected devices are nothing new. Machines, sensors and other bits of tech have been busy talking to each other long before the Internet of Things was coined as a phrase. But cheaper, smaller, better technology has meant that we can connect up more and more things — even things that probably don’t really need connecting up. IoT is finding its way into more parts of our lives, from consumer products to smart cities. We carry IoT devices in our pockets, wear them, drive them, make them part of our homes. So it follows that while they are communicating away, what they are talking about is us, even if only in an anonymous, tangential way. Who else gets this data — and what they do with it — raises issues that will grow exponentially in parallel with the growth of IoT.

In this second part of our interview with Julian Ranger, founder and chairman of digi.me, he says giving control over that data to individuals will solve the problems of privacy and security while giving businesses opportunities to access better information about their consumers. In part one he described the way our personal data is currently gathered and exploited as ‘the dark side’, with businesses taking information ‘behind our backs’, hoarding and trading it — despite its low quality — in ways that annoy and trouble us. This has given rise to a war over privacy, the results of which include the meteoric rise of ad blocking and a reluctance for people to share data in the ways necessary for innovation.

This situation has major ramifications for the Internet of Things, the huge promise of which relies on greater sharing of data between the growing numbers of connected devices. The solution lies at the heart of the very idea of an Internet of Me and is the reason digi.me ­ — a platform that lets users bring their personal data together and do more with it, including sharing it on their terms — is the founding sponsor of this forum: Far better to give us our data back and then ask us for it in return for something worthwhile.

digi.me founder and chairman Julian Ranger

“The Internet of Me enables a more private world but it also enables the Internet of Things, which is the next generation of what’s going to have to come in front of us in terms of data,” says Julian. “The Internet of Things at the moment is being built on data that is collected behind us. It needs to move in front of us. We need a path towards that, from the dark side to the light side. The IoT can’t work behind us, which is the way it’s been built today. That’s just loading more rubbish on a rubbish framework. There needs to be a new framework.”

For IoT to become a part of everyday personal and domestic life, he believes, the way devices and apps handle data has to undergo a fundamental shift. At the moment, most consumer IoT products involve having an account with the manufacturer or app developer and the data goes to them first and they then provide the service you bought the device for in the first place. But this means a constant stream of data from our wearable tech, our homes, our cars, and anything else with a connection to the internet flowing away from us to these companies.

Things can only get better

This creates two significant problems. The first is that a company might simply stop providing or supporting a service, as happened when home automation firm Nest — which was acquired by Google — ditched the Revolv smart home hub earlier this year, leading to an outcry from consumers who had stumped up the £200 ($300) to buy the kit. Nest shut down the cloud service powering Revolv, rendering the tech useless. Wired rightly said it was ‘absurd’ for a user not to be able to continue to control the hub via an app on their phone and suggested “when a handshake is all that stands between your device and its final demise, you start to see just how precarious the Internet of Things really is”.

Julian says: “A large part of the cost of IoT is that all this data is being racked up into offline storage that companies are having to do. It is uneconomic to keep supporting old stuff. But what would happen if the data came to me first — not necessarily just into digi.me but wherever I choose to keep it — and I then decided where it went? If a business no longer wants to support it I can still keep this piece of kit and it keeps talking to my system for ever if I want, but more importantly I get to control where the data goes.”

Julian’s view that giving the end user control over their own data is a necessity that will solve many of the problems of IoT complements that of Dr Phil Windley, who told Internet of Me back in March how this personal agency will become vital in order to cope with the sheer number of connected devices we will be using. Phil, an academic and authority on IoT, said: “The very model that each device is going to be connected to the manufacturer’s cloud and I’m going to have an account with every one of them and work with their various APIs is not going to work.”

Giving individuals control over their data in a way that puts them at the centre of their connected lives, then, offers a practical way of managing and controlling everything. For Julian, the focus of that control is more about the value of the data itself and the power of choice it offers the individual. Crucially, he stresses that handing that power to individuals is not a problem or a threat to businesses, but rather presents opportunities for consumer-focused innovation as well as ways to clear regulatory and legal hurdles such as the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“To get IoT into the home, data should come to me first and I then decide who can have it,” he says. “In the case of Nest, for example, all the thermostat data would come to me. If I want to leave a channel open to Google, fine. Someone can ask to access my data and I will say yes or no — a right enshrined in the GDPR with its requirement for explicit and informed consent. If I say no to using my data for one thing, I might also say yes for something else. If I don’t get the insight or added service from doing so, that’s my decision.

“Also, Google might not give me everything I want from my Nest. There might be a new company who says if you’ve got a Nest and this or that piece of kit then we can give you a better service and, by the way, it’s all going to happen on your infrastructure and we won’t see any of your data. There are all sorts of different worlds that are possible.”

The privacy problem

The other major problem for IoT is the huge concern over privacy and security that arises from organisations gathering and holding so much information about us. Again, giving back data to the individual offers businesses an opportunity to not only do the right thing by their customers but also to mitigate the risk of holding so much of their data.

“One of the major factors causing problems for the development of IoT is people’s confidence in sharing data. There isn’t any. However, if the data comes to me with all the trust principles of the Internet of Me then the Internet of Things isn’t anything special. It’s just another source of data — it comes to me and I say who can have it. It’s a very simple world.”

Indeed, for its report The Impact Of Trust On IoT, the Mobile Ecosystem Forum polled 5,000 people in eight countries across five continents and found 62% thought the main concerns surrounding IoT was privacy, followed by security at 54%. In America, the perceived lack of privacy was the biggest worry at 70%, above the global average. People in the UK were more worried about security — again, at 67%, above the worldwide average.

“Think about cars,” says Julian. “A connected car will talk to a smart city, telling it ‘I am a car’ along with the planned destination for route information and so on. For a single journey that’s not really infringing your privacy — it is all anonymous. But knowing where that car is every second of every day, how fast it was going, who was in it — that is really personal data. I’m not sure I want that sort of information about me going to BMW or Renault or whoever. However, I can use that data in many useful ways. Not just for better, cheaper insurance. I can use it to have a record of everywhere I’ve been. I could give permission to an app I trusted to say these are my car journeys, can you suggest a way I could travel by train instead in future, or to suggest things I could do on a route. There are many things we could allow our data to do. But, surely, I should be the one to decide what happens to that data. If a carmaker says it wants some of the data to give me a better service, I’ll decide whether they can have it. I will make the choice whether I buy that car — the market will decide.”

The same thing can be said for the wider Internet of Things. The market will decide. There may be large numbers of people who don’t understand the importance and value of their own data. Many simply don’t care — at least for now. But if one thing is certain, it is that we will continue to create ever-greater amounts of information about ourselves as we go about our lives, assisted by our connected devices. Who holds it and what happens to it will only become bigger issues for us as individuals and consumers, and for the businesses that want to unlock the value of our data. Those businesses that still want to go ‘behind us’ for it will surely be going against the direction the market is moving in. The shift is already underway and so they risk damaging their markets while missing opportunities.

The ‘Me’ in the Internet of Me owns the ‘Things’ in the Internet of Things — and should own the data that powers them, too.

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Internet of Me is supported and sponsored by digi.me