Integration of Trust: Being Ethical with the Internet of Things

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Integration of Trust: Being Ethical with the Internet of Things

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Internet of Things (IoT) is an emerging technological advancement that can offer several benefits to our global society and can transform the digital economy. IoT is the interplay of sense, inference, intelligence-based decision and action: the potential of its applications in various domains of smart living can advance the Sustainable Development Goals as mentioned in Paragraph 15 of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

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by Peter Bakker, President & CEO, World Business Council for Sustainable Development

IoT technology is also enabling the smart city concept. Two key features of smart cities are user-centricity and digitally-enabled infrastructure. Interdependent smart services are the foundation stone of smart cities, as they support the critical infrastructure necessary to handle major public service systems. These smart systems also enable dynamic, synergistic data gathering and analytics-based intelligent decisions and actions.

Read the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Paper Innovation policies for Sustainable development: Low-carbon energy and smart-city initiatives


When we use IoT devices, we should treat them as “objects of purpose” and their users as subjects. However, we are seeing that businesses are reversing these roles, capturing users’ preferences and behavioural data without consent by creating a domain of influence that is unintended from the user’s perspective. In such situations, the belief system collapses and can lead to erosion of trust in the smart devices and services, preventing us from realising the social benefits of this emerging technology.

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To achieve the true potential of this technology, the concerns of cybersecurity, data privacy and algorithmic bias in autonomous smart services should be effectively addressed. Protection of private and sensitive information is of utmost importance in smart services; we have seen the negative impact of weak security in 2016 when IoT devices were exploited by the Mirai botnet on a massive scale. Any loss or breach of data can damage the users' perception of security, privacy and trust in smart services. Regulation like the EU GDPR mandates the control and protection of personal data and is significantly relevant for IoT offerings across domains.

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The key ethical concerns of IoT that are gaining momentum are:

  • Openness and transparency in design: The users of IoT devices and services do not want a black-box output. The actions resulting from contextual data gathering by smart autonomous systems should be free of any form of bias.
  • Contextual integrity and degree of mediation: IoT users are concerned that their personal data will be captured by smart device and service providers, often through the offer of free features, and used commercially or sold to third parties.
  • Lack of visibility of data transactions in a distributed system of systems: As smart systems share data in a smart-service ecosystem, dependencies can arise as in a smart city. In such IoT service offerings, care has to be taken to remove opacity in users’ personal data movement across smart system boundaries.
  • Trust permeability in interfaces of human and IoT: As IoT devices and smart services become more common, we will see increased interaction between smart devices, smart services and humans. In the classical case of delegating human autonomy and agency to the “things”, we can see autonomous interactions between smart systems and devices. This ranges from your fridge alerting you that your vegetables are running out, and ordering delivery drones to replace them, to traffic systems that spot bottlenecks and divert vehicles to reduce congestion. 

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Despite the convenience of smart services, the “things” providing a representation of reality to be interpreted by humans can lead to confidence loss among users. We can prevent this through accountable design of IoT devices and smart services, making the “things” open for inspection and verification, development of globally accepted conformance systems and governance mechanisms with appropriate regulatory measures.

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Structured and well-defined IoT policy must be developed collaboratively by governments and industry to address user concerns and other factors impacting IoT trustworthiness. It is also essential to ensure that IoT specific legislation and industry standard protocols do not stifle innovation. The OECD Principles on AI can be a guiding force in designing trustworthy smart autonomous services for the benefit of mankind.

Find out more about the OECD's work on AI and the OECD AI Policy Observatory

Find out more about the OECD's work on AI

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