As one of the most pervasive technological trends to have emerged in the 21st century, there are few areas of our daily lives that have not been touched by the so-called ‘internet of things’.
But what exactly is the ‘internet of things’ and why will it prove to be such an important force in the years to come?
What is the ‘internet of things’?
The ‘internet of things’ (IoT) is essentially the network of physical objects that have embedded within them software, sensors and other digital and networked technologies that allow them to connect and exchange data between them. This exchange of data and information occurs through the internet and captures connections between devices that include everything from ordinary household objects — such as fridges or your kettle — to highly sophisticated industrial tools.
Although the IoT is often presented as the ‘future’ of technology, it is already very much all around us. Online devices have now become essential in a range of industries and sectors, with everything from agriculture and healthcare now reliant on these technologies. This is in addition to the many IoT devices found throughout the average household.
Estimates from Ovum — an Australian digital consulting firm — indicate that by 2022, Australian homes will have well over 47 million IoT devices in them.
The potential benefits of the internet of things are wide ranging, particularly in important areas of our lives such as the provision of health services, the management of cities and public spaces, public transport and education.
Not only will these benefits bring immediate improvements to the lives of ordinary citizens and consumers, the internet of things will also have a much broader economic impact. By facilitating data informed processes and automation in a wide range of sectors and industries, the IoT can help to bring about something akin to an industrial revolution for the digital age.
If the internet of things is described as the next ‘tech revolution’, it is clearly a revolution that is already well under way!
The risks of the internet of things
Although the internet of things brings an almost innumerable list of benefits with it and marks one of the great technology advancement facing society, it also presents wide ranging risks and dangers.
Some of these potential problems include increased opportunities for surveillance, a general loss of privacy, issues around transparency and control, as well as an over-reliance on devices that might prove unsafe.
Indeed, if personal data has been described as the new “digital gold”, it seems only natural that devices that are readily able to capture constant streams of this information would be quick to capitalise on it.
The risks posed by such wide-ranging and pervasive data collection processes are made all the more problematic given that the security of many IoT devices can be vulnerable to hacking. Indeed, if the doorbell to your front door or the keys to your car are reliant on being connected to the internet to function, they are vulnerable to surreptitious attacks by nefarious online forces.
There is also a risk that the efficiency benefits presented by the internet of things may cause us to over-rely on digital technologies. This is particularly problematic in areas such as telehealth provision, where the quality of care might be less than in a traditional healthcare setting.
For this reason, the internet of things era is one where informing consumers about these risks is more important than ever.
Responding to the internet of things: governance challenges
Cognizance of these risks and opportunities is particularly important as Australian legislators look to respond to this digital resolution, while also taking advantage of some of its benefits.
However, given that the technologies associated with the internet of things have such a wide ranging and varied way of impacting our daily lives, this makes regulating these technologies particularly difficult.
As such, what is needed is not a single legislative or regulatory solution. Rather, a combination of both more general and more targeted legislative solutions will allow governments to better respond to the risks created by IoT technologies.
This might include, for example, ensuring data protection frameworks are in place to ensure that the personal information of individual users is treated properly, while also enhancing legislation criminalising hackers and promoting cybersecurity.
The technological revolution brought about by the internet of things era presents many legal and ethical challenges. Responding to these will be one of the most important challenges facing Australian legislators in the years to come — particularly if the Australian government hopes to maintain a position of competitiveness in the global economy.