Conferences & Events

Online Privacy and the Internet of Things

By Chris McManes

Hall and Oates sing about Private Eyes that are “watching you, watching you “; They see your every move.”

Electronic “eyes” are watching us, too.

Some people make it easy for others to find out what they’re doing and what they like. Their life is an open e-book. Others are more guarded. They think where they’re shopping, eating or having fun is no one else’s business.

Privacy was a major topic of discussion during a recent panel session at the IEEE World Forum on Internet of Things (IoT) at the Hyatt Regency in Reston, Va. According to Jean Camp, chair of IEEE-USA’s Committee on Communications Policy, the gist of privacy is data protection.

“It can also just be property,” said Camp, during the IoT Governance in the USA–Policy Challenges and Issues Industry Forum, on 14 December. “Facebook owns the data that I post about myself. Or it can be a fundamental human right.

“If it’s a fundamental, inalienable human right, then you can’t sell it.”


IoT is basically the connection of anything with communication technology to the Internet. This includes things like alarm systems, televisions, fitness trackers and Smart Grid energy monitors.

The IEEE Internet of Things Technical Community defines IoT as “a computing concept where all things, including every physical object, can be connected.” This makes “those objects intelligent, programmable, and capable of interacting with humans.”

Lee Stogner, who serves on that technical committee, said IoT has “touched billions” of people worldwide.

“We use it for our smartphones. We use it to watch over our children. We use it to become more efficient at work and have more fun at play,” Stogner said. “So the IoT is here to stay. We either like it, we love it, or we see some things we might like to change.”

While IoT provides the convenience of monitoring information on devices remotely and sending commands, it also conveys data about you and your habits. For example, when we browse the Internet for whatever reason–entertainment, looking for a hotel, researching a car, etc.–we’re creating an online profile of things we like and are interested in. Such data can be a gold mine to companies looking to make a sale.

You’ve probably noticed that if you search online for a hotel in Las Vegas, you’ll begin to see ads for Sin City hotels popping up on your screen. The businesses that pay to be on various Websites are trying to sell you something. They know you’re interested. Now they want to convert that interest into profit.


Companies can also sell that information to vendors. Thus, widespread online connectivity results in a loss of privacy.

Camp, co-director of the Indiana University Center for Security Informatics, thinks government should do things to help consumers guard their privacy.

“We’re engineers, and we need to protect non-engineers,” she said.

Jeffrey Voas, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), doesn’t agree. He said if people put a lot of information about themselves online, they should expect to face consequences. He calls it a “risky behavior” and likens it to smoking.

“If that’s what you want, you can’t expect the government to fix all your problems,” Voas said. “There are people out there who want to steal your information. They want to play the ransomware game. They want to play all those games with you.

“You have to look at this as you signed up for certain things. So you’re going to get what you’re going to get. [If you think] that government is going to solve all your problems you’re creating for yourself, I think you need to look into that a little bit deeper.”

Stogner said some people try to restore their online privacy through a “cyber detox.” They either take themselves off the Internet for good, or get off, and then “just carefully reintroduce themselves in the way they want to from that point on.”

What Are You Willing to Spend for Privacy?

Price discrimination is the charging of different prices to people for the same good or service. In pure (or perfect) price discrimination, according to Investopedia, “the seller charges each customer the maximum price that he is willing to pay.”

We see price discrimination every day in gasoline sales. Go from one neighborhood to one with much-higher home prices, or office rents, and see how the price jumps for the same gasoline.

In cyberspace, we reveal how much we’re willing to pay for something every time we make a purchase. Our spending habits become data points and convey how much we’ll pay for a service or product. Whether it’s high or low, the data exists. Thus, others now know what we buy, and how much we’ll pay.

According to Camp, companies don’t like it when they discover that you would have paid more for something you bought from them for less.

“They get to sell to everybody at exactly the price they’re willing to pay,” Camp said.

Privacy, too, is subject to perfect price discrimination.

“The opposite of privacy is price discrimination,” Camp said. “So, when you think about privacy-enhancing technologies, you need to think about how that works with price discrimination.”

Online security is sometimes compromised in the name of privacy–and vice versa. In “Risking it All: Unlocking the Backdoor to the Nation’s Cybersecurity,” IEEE-USA warns that:

“The United States might have compromised both security and privacy in a failed attempt to improve security. A thorough, technically informed, and documented process of risk assessment–with balanced stakeholders from all sides–is needed to ensure the resilience and security of America’s cyberinfrastructure, including the Internet and cyberphysical systems.”

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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