Ethical IoT: principles for an implementation that respects people’s digital rights

Nacho Palou    20 December, 2022

IoT (Internet of Things) is one of the fundamental technologies in more and more digital transformation processes and for the development of new business opportunities. It consists of the use of connected devices and sensors that generate or capture data through common objects such as water and electricity meters, sports and wearable clothing, vehicles, industrial systems, home automation sensors, etc.

This large network of connected IoT devices generates a huge amount of data from the physical environment. This data is captured and can be processed with technologies such as Cloud, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to help make data-driven decisions that will in turn have an impact on the physical environment and people.

A simple example would be the case of a smart HVAC system that takes into account data from different sensors (thermostats, sunlight intensity, occupancy and circulation of people, etc.) to calculate and adjust the optimal temperature in a commercial space

IoT devices can create virtual copies (digital twins) of physical infrastructures, facilities, factories or services and environments that accurately recreate their state, operations, and behaviour.

It is important, therefore, as with Artificial Intelligence, to ensure that the data captured by IoT sensors and devices is recorded, stored and used in an ethical and responsible manner. Particularly when personal data is involved; as in the case, for example, of a smartwatch capable of measuring physical activity, sleep and other health-related parameters.

Three ingredients for an “ethical IoT”

Public trust, as with all technologies in general, and digital technologies in particular, is essential to drive mass adoption to harness the power and potential of IoT to improve the environment, the economy and society.

  • Transparency: As an essential element of trust, manufacturers and companies must be honest and clear about what data they will capture, how it will be used, for what purpose, and how it will influence decision-making. By knowing this, users also understand how their data will be used and can make an informed decision.
  • Accountability: Companies make a commitment by receiving user consent that makes it necessary to ensure that data are captured, stored, and processed in a responsible manner. Especially when personal information is involved, data should be kept confidential and secure and always processed for the benefit of the user, not just for financial return.
  • Security: a company must ensure that in order to keep data private and confidential the information captured by IoT sensors and devices, companies must ensure that they set up an ecosystem that protects the user and their information. This includes ensuring that both IoT devices and data are not exposed to cyber threats and malicious attacks, and that any data is only used for the intended purpose and always with the user’s consent.

Initiatives promoting an ethical Internet of Things

Ethics is essential for any company developing, implementing or making use of IoT devices. Ensuring that data is protected and that it is captured and used in an honest and transparent way, always with the knowledge and consent of users, allows companies to respect people’s digital rights and develop a trusting relationship with the public.

There are a number of international initiatives, both public and private, that guide and participate in the development of ethical IoT technologies, including the European Internet of Things policyThe IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems or The Centre for Cybersecurity del World Economic Forum.

Many large companies and big-tech are also demonstrating their efforts and commitment to protecting people’s digital rights and implementing the principles of ethics and transparency required by the massive use of data generated by sensors and IoT devices, and their convergence with Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.

Many large companies and technology companies are demonstrating their efforts and commitment to protecting people’s digital rights

In this regard, New America’s Open Technology Institute’s Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) initiative ranks the leading telecommunications, internet, and mobile ecosystem companies whose decisions collectively affect billions of people around the world.

RDR annually compiles the Corporate Accountability Index which, in 2022 and for the third consecutive year, leads Telefónica for, among other categories, having “clear and robust policies regarding the collection and use of data” and for being the only company among those analysed with a commitment to respect human rights in the use of Artificial Intelligence.