Internet of Things

IoT: Understanding the Public Perspective

The technology industry is bullish about IoT’s potential for a vast network of interconnected devices – but what will the public think about it?

A new study of more than 1,200 experts by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center finds IoT brings concerns about vulnerabilities, risks and infringements of civil liberties. Overall, these experts believe further human and machine connectivity will progress despite ransomware disruptions and bot attacks that highlight serious global vulnerabilities in rapidly evolving technology networks. The experts also fear that a hyper-connected world poses threats to civil liberties.  

“Participants in this canvassing said a variety of forces will propel more connectivity over the next decade that manifests in things like cars, medical devices, public infrastructure and home ‘smart’ systems,” said Lee Rainie, co-author and director of Pew Research Center’s internet, technology and science research. “They argue that humans crave connection; that the IoT will bring advantages that are useful; that people’s desire for convenience will usually prevail over their concerns about risk and these factors will make it difficult – if not impossible – for people to opt out of a highly connected life.”

“However, at the same time, a small share of the experts predicted that significant numbers will withdraw to at least some degree from connected life due to possible risks that will arise as the IoT rolls out,” Rainie continued.  Some 15% of expert respondents said significant numbers are likely to disconnect and 85% chose the option that most people will move more deeply into connected life. 

Consider the following observations from industry experts:

  • Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner: “The benefits of IoT to the vendors of products and services will overwhelm the objections of the few consumers who fear security issues. Pricing models will penalize those who attempt to disconnect and reward those who connect. … If IoT enhances performance against consumer variables for selection/purchase, IoT integration will expand massively.” 
  • Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft: “Previous hardware generations and major software advances gave rise to fears, but people found ways to use them effectively, warranting measures to prevent serious misuse or negative consequences. Why would this be an exception?” 
  • David Clark, senior research scientist at MIT and Internet Hall of Fame member: “Unless we have a disaster that triggers a major shift in usage, the convenience and benefits of connectivity will continue to attract users. Evidence suggests that people value convenience today over possible future negative outcomes.” 
  • Amy Webb, futurist and CEO at the Future Today Institute: “Technology can be like junk food. We’ll consume it, even when we know it’s bad for us. There is no silver bullet. The only way to effectively prevent against malware and data breaches is to stay continually vigilant.”
  • Judith Donath of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society:  “My concern with the safety of things that are part of deeply connected world is not about its security and the dangers of being hacked (though those are real, and quite serious) but with the dangers that come with their intended uses: collecting a vast amount of intimate data about each person, while weaving themselves into everyday life as a source of great convenience and pampering.” 

SandHill.com spoke to Pew Research’s Rainie to get insight for technology vendors operating in the industry:

SandHill.com: What demands are being placed on software companies and other industry players to improve IoT security vulnerabilities?

Lee Rainie: We had a sense that urgent calls-to-action for better IoT security coming from people like Bruce Schneier had gained at least a bit of a following. His first wave of speeches and posts predicted that people would start leaving the connected world wholesale because of the security problems with basic IoT consumer devices. It was very striking to read a lot of the answers from experts that basically accepted the premise that risks will escalate, but that at the same time they also argued that people will move more deeply into life with connected devices.

There was a split in the answers of many of these experts in our sample about the performance of IoT creators. Some were unconvinced that hardware and software creators of the IoT would take security seriously; others were equally convinced that consumers and regulators would punish those who didn’t have a ‘security first’ frame of mind.

SandHill.com Do you foresee a backlash against IoT vendors for invasion of privacy or other IoT concerns that needs to be addressed today?

Lee Rainie: Many of these experts framed their concerns along broad lines of civil liberties. To them, privacy concerns were part of a larger set of issues. They also wrote about their worries that massive data flows and algorithmic applications applied to those data might limit people’s capacity to be fully independent actors in the world. Many of our respondents were convinced, though, that consumers would choose convenience over privacy and broader civil liberties issues. They also made case that people would have a hard time opting out of hyper-connected life because they would pay penalties as consumers and as community actors if they were outside the connected world.

SandHill.com: Did you hear anything in your conversations with the public, academics or industry experts that would provide the IoT industry with important communication themes they should address today? 

Lee Rainie: In answer to this question and some others we have asked in the past, a lot of these experts would sound similar notes about the rise of the IoT and the related data-creation it spawns: Pay attention to security issues; be transparent and let people know what’s happening; monitor impacts and outcomes so that biases or unfair outcomes from the expansion of the IoT are minimized; and try to build a connected world that can be repaired when inevitable problems arise.

Click here to read all the broader themes these experts articulated in their answers and click here to read the full report.  

Clare Christopher is editor of SandHill.com. Lee Rainie is director of internet, technology and science research at Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder.

 

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