Right now in Copenhagen, it’s possible to tool around the city on your bicycle, avoiding red lights by following a string of green LED lights in the bike path.
Thanks to Copenhagen’s smart city initiatives, big data is helping commuters in all kinds of ways. Truck drivers can tell when the next stoplight will change by checking their smartphones. Soon, city garbage collectors will be notified of overflowing garbage cans and those bicyclists will enjoy real-time information on the best routes to their destination.
Big Data and the Internet of Things
It’s all made possible by what we know as “Big Data”. In the case of Copenhagen, this data comes from a wireless network of streetlamps fitted with sensors. All those streetlamps are part of the Internet of Things, which helps feed Big Data… and which also poses gigantic concerns for privacy and security.
By 2020, it’s expected that there will be around 26 billion “things” in the Internet of Things. Some say it will be even more- around 100 billion. These will include anything from Copenhagen’s streetlamps to smartphones to your wifi-connected coffee maker to the RFID tag on the public bus that lumbers by as you make your way to work.
Smart Cities are Great but What’s the Tradeoff?
Big Data makes smart cities like Copenhagen possible. It’s been attributed with possibly improving just about every aspect of life, from schools to our gun problem to the dairy industry. But what exactly is the trade-off?
In five years, when the IoT has grown even larger, will someone be able to hack into your toothbrush and steal your bank information? We’re already worried about hacking and privacy… what will the conversation look like five or ten years from now?
When streetlamp sensors are recording more than traffic congestion, the dangers to privacy could take on a very serious tone. Just think: streetlamps are everywhere. We may even be facing a world where face recognition is used to keep tabs on our whereabouts at all times.
Privacy is a Concern- So is Discrimination
Business loves data- marketers thrive on it and there’s now an entire industry revolving around harnessing data to provide ultra-targeted marketing campaigns. For example, websites serve up different landing pages based on who the visitor might be.
But what happens when the demographics allow businesses to guess at data like race? What if race is then used to discriminate against someone? Targeted marketing is completely legal. Discrimination is not.
Yet that’s exactly what happened in the US subprime lending market several years back. During the insanity that prevailed during the heyday of the subprime mortgage boom, big data played a very big role. Brokers used multiple sources of data to infer race, and then offered minorities a different (inferior) type of loan called “ghetto loans”.
Where Does All This Leave Us?
So what’s the answer? Clearly, there’s no stopping the IoT. It’s here, and it’s growing aggressively, aided by enthusiastic proponents who champion its many benefits.
But the question has never been whether to stop the Internet of Things or even how to slow it down. The important question is, how we can provide the protections we need for our privacy, our security, and our safety?
Ironically, the answer lies in a solution that’s very simple – very non-technical, even. It’s a human solution that would require the human touch. Algorithms can help us make important decisions, but only a concerned body of informed people can alter the course of how we handle Big Data. Stay informed, be active, and let’s make sure privacy legislation keeps pace with Big Data and the Internet of Things.