Many of us have heard of the Internet of Things (IoT), they refer to everyday objects, such as our phones or doorbells, that become “smart” as a result of their Internet connection. IoT devices communicate with each other without human intervention, often collecting and sharing data, our data.  

In 2019, the Asia Pacific region was the biggest spender on IoT technology according to IDC, responsible for over 35% of worldwide expenditure. As the development of IoT technology and the ubiquitous Internet continue to evolve, details of our lives such as our shopping preferences and whereabouts are recorded, shared, and have a life of its own online.

Recently, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, IoT technologies have been deployed by governments to track people, in the name of keeping our communities safe. While contact tracing may be helpful during a pandemic, IoT solutions such as these have huge privacy and confidentiality implications. What are we giving up in the name of safety and regulations?

In this post, DotAsia Organisation CEO, Edmon Chung, sits down with NetMission ambassador, Farhan Shahmi — a youth advocate for digital literacy and cultural commentary as well as a leader of the #AMBILTahu initiative that promotes media literacy to the Malaysian public, to explore the impacts and implications of IoT technology on privacy and security.

Farhan:

IoT plays an important role in maintaining online social cohesion during COVID-19 when we are practicing social distancing. How do you see  IoT utilised during the pandemic in different nations?  Furthermore, people might see these measures the governments are using with IoT as a good thing during COVID-19, as it helps tackle the crisis more effectively and efficiently. What’s your opinion?

Edmon:

I was in Toronto when COVID-19 hit the city in early March, then I returned to Hong Kong in mid-April, so I had a chance to observe the responses from two different cities. In general, everything moved online at encouragingly rapid speed. For example, schools shifted online, and my kids were able to join their classes in Hong Kong remotely from Toronto; most business operations became virtual. In that sense, this has been a shared experience across the world, where IoT solutions brought people closer together than ever before.

When I returned to Hong Kong, I was given a tag, a little device with a chip installed, strapped around my wrist to monitor my 14-day quarantine period. From what I could see, it had no interaction with the network or other devices. The only interaction discernable was a periodic scan through my phone of the QR code printed on the widget, which didn’t appear to be related to the chip. It seemed to me that while the government is trying to leverage IoT technology, the administrative infrastructure is not yet built to utilise the technical features. In this case, the development of technology is ahead of the governance and administrative processes, and as such, technology is not being utilised to its full potential.

Mainland China on the other hand appears to be tracking its citizens relatively more heavily through mobile applications. However, I am not sure we have seen a direct relation or effective contribution between a high level of tracking and curbing COVID infection rates compared with Hong Kong or Canada. For example, based on information at WHO, it appears to have taken Mainland Chinese authorities three months, from December to February, to figure out if the virus can pass from person to person. So it seems, at least from what I can observe, there isn’t any real proof that more tracking support better results.

“Freedom and liberty have to be fought for by every generation. And every generation is faced with different freedoms they need to fight for. In this generation, I believe privacy is what we need to fight for.”

Edmon Chung, CEO, DotAsia

Farhan:

What is your view on whether the general public is underestimating the threats or risks they are exposed to regarding the privacy and security aspects?

Edmon:

A lot of discussions around IoT technology and privacy often centers around which platform or company to use.  This direction of thought leads towards asking "Who is keeping my data and are they keeping it secure?" But in my opinion what we really should be questioning is "Why is my data being kept at all?"

Back to my experience with the chipped strap, it has privacy implications. I didn’t know how the chip was being used.  What kinds of data or how much data they were collecting? I wasn’t being told.  Even if it is necessary to be tracked for a public health concern, it doesn’t mean that our data should be used by others without our consent.

Is it possible to maintain privacy? Yes. Different messaging apps claim to be using end-to-end (E2E) encryption, which ensures that messages between two devices cannot be viewed by intermediary servers. However, only applications that do not maintain an encryption backdoor are truly E2E encrypted.  The E2E model can also be applied to other data, such as health data, where you hold the key to who can view your personal health information.  With this model your health data could be stored in the cloud encrypted, and can only be intelligible with your presence, with your IoT device or your consent.

Freedom and liberty have to be fought for by every generation. And every generation is faced with different freedoms they need to fight for. In this generation, I believe privacy is what we need to fight for. It’s going to be a long journey to fight for a norm where everyone in the society could expect to have their own data under their control and consent must be sought when companies or government seek your data from your devices. In addition to encryption technologies, to reach such a state, we also need open protocols, open standards and policies that are conducive to upholding privacy.

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