Health data is a good example of something where there can be negative repercussions to sharing things, and so we have a lot of privacy laws around that. But some people may not feel that way, so you see things like Patients Like Me, [a website where patients can share their medical details and meet others who share their symptoms]. We all make those decisions at an individual level. But for the Internet of Things, I think it’s very important for us to think of it at a societal level.
Waddell: To me, one of the biggest problems with the Internet of Things right now is that manufacturers are making poorly secured devices in their rush to connect every little thing they make to the internet. Is there any way to stop that from happening without turning to regulations and laws?
Berman: I was talking to someone the other day about baby monitors, which can be both great and pretty scary. It’s great to be able to monitor your baby and make sure that they’re okay, and it’s really scary when people are shrieking at your baby over the internet because your baby monitor got hacked. That’s poor design.
I think the gee-whiz aspects of the Internet of Things get a lot of attention: Oh, I can do this, and the system adapts to me in this way, and I never have to turn on the lights in my house again because my house is doing it for me.
But I think it’s equally important to be thinking on the social side. We don’t want to, as you point out, rush to the final result, which is maybe legislation or policy, without a lot of experience and testing and thinking about what’s in the public good.
Waddell: Are people getting distracted by that gee-whiz factor: the novelty of Alexa and internet-connected lights? Are we in the honeymoon stage right now?
Berman: Right. Infrastructure is never newsworthy until it fails. To get people to think about and prioritize getting infrastructure right—and governance and ethics and policy and social-interest structure—is hard. Typically we’re interested in the results and the breakthroughs and the discoveries, or the really bad things that happen, like losing social-security numbers or getting hacked. It’s not newsworthy to say the water main is working, or the lights are still on.
Waddell: The Mirai botnet and the attack on the internet probably did a lot to bring infrastructure into headlines. If people keep thinking about it, do you think some of these cultural shifts might come about a little earlier?
Berman: This is something where your periodical and a lot of other important ones can really help, because you can bring it to people’s attention. We need more than just innovators and designers to think about it. We really need the stakeholders to think about it: policymakers, the private sector, leadership and C-suite people, the general public.
Waddell: What’s one ethical guideline that Internet of Things manufacturers should be keeping in their sights when they are developing new products?
Berman: Security is critical. For all of our technologies, security is the Achilles’ Heel. If we want it to be used for benefit, we have to think about security. And we have to think about privacy, too: What data is private and what isn’t, and are we engineering our systems so that they can support whatever privacy concerns we have?