Internet of things will be a data privacy challenge, says Ireland’s DPC (video)

7 Aug 2015

Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon

Data protection regulators across Europe are conscious of the challenge posed by the emerging internet of things, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has said.

The internet of things (IoT) heralds a world where billions of devices and sensors connected to the internet will also be potentially gathering data about our every move, ostensibly to make our lives better.

In tandem with the onset of big data being used by firms to gain better insights on customers in order to drive higher profits, she said that the growing data-centric world presents a challenge that regulators are keen to get to grips with.

The number of IoT connected devices in the world is predicted to number 38.5bn by 2020 — up from 13.4bn in 2015 — a rise of more than 285pc, according to Juniper Research.

This is an area where Ireland, in particular, is staking its territory, with significant investments in IoT R&D by players like Intel, EMC and Vodafone, to name a few.

Helen Dixon is overseeing a near doubling of the Data Protection Commissioner’s budget in 2015 from €1.8m to €3.6m, an increase in headcount from 29 to 50 by September and the opening of a new office in Dublin in 2015. And Dixon believes that she, and other regulators across Europe, will require even more resources to deal with a growing workload in a data-centric world.

“We all know the statistics and projections in terms of the number of sensor-based devices we are going to have in five or 10 years’ time. Big data and the internet of things are areas of significant concern for regulators,” Dixon said.

“The traditional methods we’ve had for examining how companies are delivering transparency to users in terms of warnings on the interface you are using, privacy policies, they won’t simply apply in these sensor-based devices.

“We are working with co-regulators in Europe and globally, examining the issues, looking at what pragmatic solutions are for device manufacturers and all of the players involved in delivering smart devices.”

It’s a tall order when you consider IoT brings together device makers, mobile operators, cloud providers and a whole panoply of entrepreneurs and makers who want to create the products and services of the future.

In many ways, IoT transforms today’s manufacturers into tomorrow’s service providers.

“We will examine what role each of those can play in terms of providing innovative solutions in terms of the kind of data that is protected.”

Internet of things and big data, not big brother

Dixon said that a similar battle is being waged in terms of big data, which is already more present in the business world than internet of things sensors are.

“In terms of big data and the combining of data, this is something that we are looking at with the companies we regulate.

“We are looking to see in their privacy policy where are they putting users on notice of in terms of how the personal data will be used.

“If there are vague statements in the privacy policy where they say ‘we may share this with third parties’, we want to know what third parties and in what circumstances it will be shared, what will it be shared for and for what purposes.

“We want to make sure that any combining of data is lawful and that the user is put on reasonable notice and given an informed version of consent in terms of what they are signing up to.

“It’s a big issue, a big concern, but it is something that we are trying to deal with on the ground in terms of the companies that we are regulating.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years