Earlier this week I had a short job interview with a U.K.-based company for a position developing hardware drivers for small devices. The work would be quite rewarding in that I would get to see my work being used in millions of devices around the world, though very few people would ever know of my contributions. Travel to Europe would be required twice per year but, other than this, I could work from home and earn about 15% more than my current salary, which would likely make up for the fact that I'd be responsible for dealing with all the legal requirements of working in Japan as a remote worker1. All in all, I like the company, agree with many of their goals, and would look forward to the switch from writing software for schools (professionally) to enabling a small computer to efficiently talk to all the pieces inside its case.

But then I had to go and mess the whole thing up.

A Theoretical IoT Network. Theoretical because there's no way anyone would set it up so neatly.

After the background and technical questions were done and over with, I was asked for my thoughts on IoT, the Internet of Things, and whether I had any devices in my house. To which I responded:

No, there will never be an Alexa or anything like that in my house if it involves sending data to an external server. A lot of the hype around IoT today reminds me of the hype around smart phones in 2010, social networks in 2007, and blogging in 2003. It's a nightmare waiting to happen where millions or billions of people willingly give up their last vestiges of individual sovereignty in exchange for a couple of creature comforts. IoT to measure the world, our cities, and our businesses is one thing. IoT in the house? Only if the data never leaves my absolute control.

There was a moment of quiet on the other end of the call before the next question arrived, but it was clear that my answer was not exactly what they were expecting to hear. Five minutes later, we thanked each other for the call and went about the rest of our day. While I've not heard back whether the organisation would like another chat or not, something tells me that any company that is investing in IoT will want evangelists who will insist everyone have a hundred devices inside their home measuring everything from the toilet seat temperature to the amount of water being delivered to every tap in the house. Outside the home, tiny devices could measure how many pedestrians are using various sidewalks, how many dogs are using the park, and the velocity of street traffic during school hours. Sure, there are a lot of things that can be measured, collected, and interacted with … but not in my home. Not unless — as I said — I have complete control over that data.

Sensors to provide us with information can be very useful. Interactive, voice-controlled assistants to help us with tasks can be very useful. Regardless of what creature comforts the big corporations might offer us, data sovereignty is key to making IoT fair and trustworthy. If someone wants to have a company like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, or any other organisation host their data, perform analytics, and provide services based on the results, that's up to the individual. Most people will not want to set up a server in their house or deal with the ongoing maintenance of the devices and their data over extended periods of time. This is understandable and perfectly fine. Companies offering IoT devices, however, should give people the option to have their data stored on a machine of their choosing, ideally without first going through the hardware provider's servers2.

But I'm repeating myself … .

Ultimately, I like a lot of what IoT can offer us as individuals and as a community. My concern primarily focuses on who owns what, and nobody outside my home owns any of the data that is created within without conscious consent3.

  1. I would need to pay the taxes and deductions myself, as well as switch my pension over from employer-backed to personal-paid. Getting everything set up would be a pain but, after the umpteen trips to the various government buildings to fill out paperwork and stamp documents, I'd just have to make sure to report my income every 3 months to have the monthly taxes adjusted.

  2. There are a number of popular home security cameras in Japan that will save any video captured to your computer. However, for "convenience", the data is first uploaded to the camera maker's servers before being made available to the customer. So not only do you have to pay the company for the camera, you get to pay for the electricity to power it, the bandwidth to upload the video stream, the bandwidth to download the video stream, and handle any installation and maintenance yourself. This is a very good deal for the camera maker and a complete scam for anyone who thinks about what they're actually buying.

  3. I strongly dislike situations like "By reading this sentence you agree to blah, blah, blah." That's bullshit and is not conscious consent by any stretch of the imagination.