Credulous Congress Chugs Kool Aid On The Internet Of Things
“Increased connectivity can empower consumers in nearly every aspect of their daily lives.”
That’s one of the opening lines from H. Res. 847, a resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives at the beginning of this week. Passing this resolution was one of the very first items of business that the House took care of after a month of vacation. The resolution passed almost unanimously, with a vote of 367 in favor, and only 4 against.
Such overwhelming bipartisanship is extremely rare in Congress. So, what gives? Why did so many U.S. Representatives vote for this resolution?
H. Res 847 was a resolution expressing the sense of the U.S. House that the federal government ought to start spending a lot of money to support the development of something called the Internet Of Things. The Internet Of Things is the name given to a relatively new category of technology that seeks to establish a huge network of electronic devices that conducts surveillance of conditions around the world and uses information gathered through that surveillance to execute automatic control over an almost unimaginable number of things.
In fact, the Internet Of Things is already expanding at an astonishing rate. There are at present more interconnected electronic devices conducting surveillance and control as part of the Internet Of Things than there are human beings on Earth.
Internet Of Things proponents envision a future in which every little thing we do is measured, tracked, reported, and analyzed. They’re talking about putting tracking devices in roadways, in refrigerators, in jugs of milk, in showerheads, in lightbulbs, in doorknobs, in dog leashes, in textbooks, in bedsheets, in pencils, in… well, in practically everything. These sensors would then communicate to control the machines in our lives: Our locks, our alarms, our cars, our coffeepots, our ovens, our telephones, our washing machines, our… well, practically everything we own.
A classic example of the way the Internet Of Things works is that of a person driving a car home on a wintry road after a day at the office. The person’s car has a GPS tracking device on it that senses when the car is driving toward the house. When the car crosses the line of 30 miles from home, it sends a signal to a computer server that then relays that signal to the person’s home thermostat, which begins the process of efficiently warming the home to 70 degrees from the relatively chilly, but more environmentally responsible, 55 degrees that the home rests at through the middle of the day.
It sounds like a smart idea, and one that could be replicated through our civilization’s infrastructure to save energy and other resources. Because it’s done automatically, proponents of the Internet Of Things say, there won’t be any human error in the system, and conservation of energy will become super-efficient.
There’s good reason to explore technology that truly enables improved energy efficiency. However, it isn’t clear that Internet Of Things technology is the best solution for increasing energy efficiency. It isn’t at all efficient to manufacture equipment that uses electricity to constantly communicate with far-away computers, tracking people’s movements all day long just in order to tweak a few minutes of thermostat use. People could just as easily hit a remote-control button on their smartphones to adjust their thermostats, or automatically program their thermostats to match their daily schedules for maximum energy efficiency – no GPS tracking necessary.
Yet, despite more efficient, easier alternatives that preserve people’s privacy, advocates of the Internet Of Things persist in pushing a model that depends on unending surveillance of where people go and what they do, combined with systems to automatically control, from far away computer centers inaccessible to the public, simple everyday activities that people have traditionally controlled themselves. Why?
Part of the explanation is an engineering culture that comes up with solutions first and then seeks out problems to which they can be applied. Another motivation, less inept and less innocent, is that tech corporations have learned that there’s a great deal of money to be made from spying on people’s private lives, and selling the information to the highest bidder.
It’s telling that, in its hearings on the Internet Of Things, the U.S. House of Representatives has only heard the voices of for-profit companies in the tech industry and their allies. Last year, when the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on The Internet of Things: Exploring the Next Technology Frontier, the only people who testified at that hearing were the representatives of three corporations that seek to profit from Internet Of Things products, and Daniel Casto, Director of the Center for Data Innovation, a pro-industry, anti-privacy organization.
At that hearing, Castro argued urgently against legal protections for Americans against the planned onslaught of trillions of Internet Of Things sensors, watching, listening and tracking practically everywhere that people go. Castro warned the House Energy and Commerce Committee that, “Congress should act cautiously as it considers rules on privacy and security so as to not impede innovation,” and suggested that even something as simple as telling people in print how Internet Of Things devices are spying on their personal activities could “limit the ability of manufacturers to easily send software updates”.
A few months later, a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Internet Of Things also failed to include any voices speaking for the Americans’ privacy concerns. The committee heard from the Information Technology Industry Council, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and the APP Association, a corporate advocacy group representing over 5,000 technology companies. No civil liberties advocates were invited.
An Internet of Things Showcase hosted by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade in the U.S. House of Representatives last year was also a one-sided, industry-only display. Only the benefits, rather than the negative consequences and risks, of the Internet Of Things were shown at the event. What’s more, the corporations involved all had facilities in the home districts of Subcommittee members.
In some cases, money changed hands before the Congressional Showcase. In the 26th congressional district of Texas, for example, the Toyota Motor North America, Inc. Political Action Committee made direct payments to the re-election campaign of Subcommittee member Michael Burgess. Then, Michael Burgess sponsored the Toyota Motor Company’s display of the Lexus Enform, one of Toyota’s cars connected to Internet Of Things, at the Subcommittee’s Showcase.
Daniel Castro told Congress that Americans don’t need to worry about invasion of privacy through the creation of a nearly ubiquitous network of interconnected devices that are constantly listening, watching, and tracking us, because “cultural norms” will prevent such abuses from taking place. Cultural norms, of course, did absolutely nothing to prevent the National Security Agency from secretly reading through Americans’ emails, listening to their private phone calls, and stealing a huge amount of other data about their locations and personal activities. The fact that such activities are explicitly against the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America didn’t protect Americans either.
Government agencies and corporations have already proven that they will do whatever they can to spy on Americans whenever they can, using that information in whatever way they want, without regard for our privacy rights. Cultural norms will offer no protection. Strong regulation of the Internet Of Things, establishing severe financial and criminal penalties for violations of privacy, will.
Has there been any such legislation to establish regulations protecting consumer privacy from violation by the Internet Of Things? Not one such bill has been introduced in either house of Congress. Instead, U.S. Representative Erik Paulsen and Deb Fischer, both Republicans, have introduced the DIGIT Act in the House and Senate, a bill that would convene a government working group with the task of identifying consumer privacy protections that can be dismantled in order to allow the Internet Of Things to surge forward into implementation more quickly.
There is a barely a fig leaf of coverage of Americans’ privacy concerns about the Internet Of Things surveillance and control system in H. Res. 847, which urges that, “The United States should prioritize accelerating the development and deployment of the Internet of Things in a way that recognizes its benefits, allows for future innovation, and responsibly protects against misuse.”
That the acceleration of the development and deployment of a vast network of devices designed to spy on and control our everyday activities is fundamentally incompatible with responsible protection against misuse of the Internet Of Things doesn’t seem to have occurred to the politicians in the U.S. House of Representatives.
You can change that. Every member of the House of Representatives is now eagerly campaigning for re-election. You can contact your member of the U.S. House, by phone, online, and by visiting the nearest campaign headquarters, and politely but firmly express your belief that the Internet Of Things is being established too quickly, with too little restraint. No one else is going to advocate for your privacy against a new age when even your morning bowl of cereal will become the subject of electronic snooping and automatic control.