We Need an Open Internet of Things

Serendipity seems to be the driving force in my ventures and it happened again. After taking off most of 2014 to build a new house in Santa Fe, I was ready to get back to work. Not that building a house where I was the general contractor and worked as a carpenter for much of the time isn’t work. It’s hard work, but I wanted to find another small venture on which to focus my energies and time. I had thought I found a great idea for a specialized home automation system I wanted to build to save water and energy. It would be a sustainable business that combined my interest in home building and technology.

I made an interesting discovery as I was researching Internet of Things (IoT) technology I might be able to use in my project. What I found was a serious threat to consumer privacy and control of their home environments. Now I consider myself a good technologist and a realist about the tradeoffs using modern technology but hardly a privacy maven. The benefits of online technology often come with attached non-monetary costs. I’m usually willing to accept some loss of privacy and being spammed with targeted ads (the usual payment) in exchange for free email, excellent search engine results and great maps. A balanced transaction if not ideal. Quid pro quo.

My discovery alarmed me more than I expected but with good reason. In my assessment, the Internet of Things is rapidly evolving as a vast array of smart home devices that are silently sucking up personal information for use in private Big Data systems owned by Google, Facebook and Amazon. Nothing new you might say. These folks are already “hoovering” up my data, right? True, but this time, they are using slick marketing to sell consumers on the wonders of a George Jetson future their devices bring to consumers homes. They simply neglect to tell consumers that the real purpose of these smart IoT devices is primarily to learn more about them so they can develop even more targeted advertising. A balanced transaction? Hardly.

This use of stealthy “trojan horses” masking an Internet pipeline feeding corporate Big Data systems borders on dishonesty and certainly lacks transparency. This begins the story of how we decided to create the Open IoT Foundation as a nonprofit venue to give voice to these concerns. We tell the back story on the website and also lay out what we think represents a fair consumer Bill of Rights for an open Internet of Things.

My new mission is not my usual product-centric startup by any means but a really important subject. Creating consumer awareness of what is happening with the Internet of Things won’t be easy. The Open IoT Foundation is a starting point and the book I am co-authoring with a friend on this topic (more on the book in the next post) will provide another platform.

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