IoT developers call for a data ethics revolution

Across Europe, IoT developers are calling to end careless data security practices and ethically questionable WiFi-connected products, shows a new analysis by researchers from the IT University of Copenhagen. The researchers are currently developing the ethical guidelines and tools to help developers as they debate existing problems and design future technologies.

Business IT DepartmentResearchethicsinternet of thingsIrina ShklovskiRachel Douglas-Jones

Barbie dolls that allow hackers to spy on children, sex toys that reveal the habits of their owners, and WiFi-connected cameras and refrigerators being used for hacking attacks.

There are plenty of examples of what can go wrong when companies connect physical products to the internet. The proliferation of insecure and ill-considered IoT products can be attributed to an eagerness to develop new and smart products combined with a lack of relevant expertise to cover all the necessary issues when it comes to smart and connected hardware, says Irina Shklovski, an Associate Professor at ITU.

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If for instance a cosmetics company produced a WiFi-connected hairbrush, it is suddenly no longer just a hairbrush, but also a communication tool.

Irina Shklovski, Associate Professor at ITU
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"Today, many companies are plunging into producing IoT products without particular expertise in this very complex field. If for instance a cosmetics company produced a WiFi-connected hairbrush, it is suddenly no longer just a hairbrush, but also a communication tool," she says.

"This brings up a set of ethical questions and risks completely different from those that the company is used to. For instance questions about what data the hairbrush should collect, which data should be available to the users, and how these data can be managed in an ethically responsible manner," says Irina Shklovski.

Manifestos respond to concerns

Irina Shklovski is leading the EU-funded research project VIRT-EU, which investigates how European IoT developers relate to ethical issues. According to her, developers are recognizing that it is time to put an end to ethically questionable products.

"The developers we have spoken to often express frustration and concern about the technologies they are contributing to designing. In recent years, more and more developer communities have started writing these concerns into manifestos that define the current state of affairs, for instance in relation to data collection and security, and outline visions for a better future," she says.

In collaboration with Associate Professors Irina Shklovski and Rachel Douglas-Jones, PhD student Ester Fritsch analysed 28 of these manifestos in a new research article.

The researchers conclude that IoT developers are trying to shift the conversation from the hype of what is possible in IoT to the question of what and who is actually responsible for the products and, more importantly, for the broader consequences of the decisions made in the design of IoT products and services.

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Are developers responsible for considering all the possible future effects of their designs? The question is also whether it is reasonable to leave these considerations to individual developers.

Irina Shklovski, Associate Professor at ITU
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"The manifestos are raising many complex questions about responsibility. Should users take responsibility for understanding how their WiFi-connected baby alarms and speakers work, or should designers ensure that devices communicate better how they work? Are developers responsible for considering all the possible future effects of their designs? The question is also whether it is reasonable to leave these considerations to individual developers," says Irina Shklovski.

Ethics to be integrated in design processes

There are many tools intended to inspire and support IoT developers and companies to think through the consequences of the technologies they design and develop.

Yet most of these are intended for a one-time brainstorm or experience of reflection, and rarely are they connected to the design process itself, says Irina Shklovski, who points out that design and development of IoT products and services is an on-going process. In this process, new decisions must be made as new contingencies and stakeholders emerge.

Therefore, one of the goals of the VIRT-EU project is to develop tools and guidelines that can help developers to incorporate ethics into their design process over time and to consider the potential impact of products on individuals and societies.

“In VIRT-EU we think of ethics as values in action. However, ethical actions are always taken in contexts – within power relationships and constraints. So we are studying what people actually do in practice, and how their actions are shaped by, and can be reshaped in, their settings” Irina Shklovski says.

Further information

Irina Shklovski, Associate Professor, phone +45 7218 5363, email irsh@itu.dk

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email viar@itu.dk