The Pew Research Center recently asked nearly 12,000 people - selected Internet experts and members of the US public - to predict how the network of connected devices, sensors and electronics known as the "Internet of things" might affect their lives.
They raised two major concerns: first, that consumers will need to actively protect the data generated by their devices, and second, that the Internet of things might create a "digital divide" between the tech-savvy and new users.
Of the 12,000 people canvassed by Pew, about 1,900 responded. They were asked whether they thought the Internet of things would have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025 (83 per cent said yes), what potential barriers to adoption are, and where the commercial and social applications would be, among other open-ended questions.
The Internet of things has attracted interest from tech giants such as Cisco, Intel and General Electric, which have all dedicated business units to developing the sensors and processing the data the network would generate.
Consumers are gradually buying into the trend - wearable devices such as fitness trackers and Google Glass are starting to appear in public, and smartphone users are becoming more comfortable with controlling household appliances from their phones.
Pew's Internet research department has done similar surveys related to the potential impact of broadband Internet access, mobile devices and social media, according to Lee Rainie, director of Pew's Internet & American Life Project. Although responses to the canvass were speculative, "the expert community is sort of sending signals to the policy community that these [concerns] are not necessarily going to be resolved by the market," he said.
Some made the case for better protection of consumer data.
"There's generally this sense that [consumers] aren't too terribly aware of the dimensions of the surveillance," Rainie said.
The network could lead to users being continuously monitored by health devices, traffic management, security controls and other sensors, some argued.
"The risk is that inimical forces may gain control and create serious problems," Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, wrote in his response to Pew. "Wearables will monitor health and also draw computers into the context of our daily lives, conversations, and activities. A big opportunity for [artificial intelligence] awaits. Privacy will be hard to come by."
Those who are plugged in to the Internet of things will need to decide where they are comfortable sending their data, agreed Andrew Bridges, a partner, Internet law litigator and policy analyst at Fenwick & West.
"Given the massive amount of data that all persons will generate, both the most precious commodity and the most dangerous threat will be attention: What do people pay attention to? . . . Some interactions may be so low-risk and benign that default settings may always be to communicate the data, but others will be more sensitive, and persons will want to make deliberate choices about them," he wrote.
Consumers' concerns about data privacy could prevent the network from growing, said Mobile First Media founder John Senall.
Wearable devices "will gain traction in adoption, but for years it will likely be for more trivial uses" instead of technology that could meaningfully increase personal productivity, he wrote, adding that the latter might require users to share more information about themselves.
Even when the Internet of things does catch on, tech experts said they expect the network to eventually divide society, Rainie said.
"The 1990s version of 'digital divides' was strictly about access [to computers or broadband connections]. . . . In the Internet of things, it's about who understands what's going on," Rainie said.
Consumers are buying into the trend of wearable devices such as Google Glass. Photo / AFP
Consumers who can manage their privacy settings to protect their own data and are knowledgable about data security will be less vulnerable than new users. Savvy consumers who are connected to the Internet of things might also benefit from the analytics services that some devices provide.
"The people who are not necessarily tuned in to the realities of the IoT or don't necessarily have the gadgetry, . . . those people are going to have some deeper deficits," Rainie said.
Miguel Alcaine, an International Telecommunication Union area representative for Central America, noted that the network could have an uneven effect on developed and developing countries.
Developing countries might be able to use sensors to manage utilities markets such as energy and water, but "unfortunately, it might not help people in developing countries with developmental issues, mainly because of the tendency in many developing countries to focus on the short term and not on the long term," he wrote.
Pew Internet plans to track the response to the Internet of things more closely over the next few years, Rainie said.
"There are lots of people who have high hopes," Rainie said, but he added that "there are any number of these experts [saying] we've never designed systems this complex before. . . . It's going to be hard, it's going to be complex."
- Washington Post