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The internet of things is an opportunity not a threat

Businesses need to explain how they will use data generated by the internet of things to avoid public fears over how that data is used

Why do we persist in seeing the internet of things as a data protection threat? Do we really think that businesses developing and using the underlying technology are interested in the minutiae of the content of conversations overheard and recorded by an enabled television, any more than they would want to know the heart rate recorded by a fitness band as the wearer struggles to run in polluted city air?

There has been much speculation about how the internet of things (IoT) will perform daily activities on our behalf, with the refrigerator - behaving in a sentient way by noting that we are out of milk and putting it in our basket for the next online shop - being the most frequently quoted example. 

The fitness band could detect a heart attack and summon help for the wearer, but it is more likely the wearer will download their data at the end of the run. The fitness band will record and retain personal data, but the data made available by the IoT is at its most useful in an anonymous form. 

Businesses and government bodies responsible for public services want to analyse and make associations between different types of data to improve product reliability and to make social and economic decisions. 

The IoT can help with this by creating a real and measurable record based on actual data, rather than making assumptions by piecing together information that may be inferred about users, such as browsing habits online.

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Data protection notices are almost always described as “privacy policies”. The IoT is just one of the recent developments that have given momentum to the need to approach this as “data use”. This changes the emphasis to one of action, which is the way forward, rather than prohibition. 

Terms of use should be clear and easily understood. They should inform users not only who is collecting the data and what they will do with it besides providing the user a service, but make a point of educating users as to where their data may be used in an aggregated way.

If the benefits of this can be understood, then the IoT is not something to be feared, but an opportunity to change the climate in which users really begin to understand the value of their data. Businesses that operate in a trusted way can pass on the benefits to society as a whole, and give an improved user experience and product to the individual. That sounds like a reasonable trade.

Kim WalkerKim Walker is a partner at law firm Thomas Eggar.

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