Internet of Behaviour: A boon or a breach of privacy?

Big questions on use of big data

Business

July 19, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Internet of Behaviour: A boon or a breach of privacy?

Thanks to IoB advertising on popular social media apps like Instagram and Pinterest, experts say that by 2023, individual activities of 40 pc of the global population will be digitally trackable

Hailed as a top technological trend of 2021, Internet of Behaviour or IoB is used by many apps and OTT platforms to track consumer experience and provide insights into the user’s future behaviour. Its increased use raises questions of data abuse and privacy.

In 2021, the ease of internet connectivity is something many can take for granted. Most daily tasks and actions that once required a series of actions or human interaction are now simplified and just a couple of clicks away, especially tasks such as food delivery, cinema or show tickets, shopping, travel, and more. In the last decade, however, with the advent of new technology like AI, choices made online can seem almost involuntary. For example, if a user books an Uber ride home, UberEats, a food delivery app that has access to the inputted data in Uber, automatically suggests an order customised to the individual’s taste based on user history which will be waiting for them when they arrive home. Amazon Prime, a streaming platform, introduced their #WhatsYourMood campaign, which asks the user their mood that day and then suggests top picks to watch based on that, eliminating the need to narrow down the unlimited choices available.

This technology is known as the Internet of Behaviour (IoB) and employs data mining to streamline and personalise user predictions and actions, and it is increasingly being used by apps and OTT platforms to ‘improve user experience’, a euphemism for getting more revenue from the same customer. In its 2021 strategic predictions, Gartner, a global IT research firm, called IoB one of the top technological trends of 2021 and reported that by the end of 2025, over half of the world’s population would be subject to at least one IoB programme, whether it be commercial or governmental.

While the Internet of Things (IoT) refers to any device that can be connected to the internet, such as smartphones, tablets and computers, IoB refers to the interconnection of those devices; the collection and usage of data from an individual’s IoT device provides valuable insights into user experience, search experience optimisation, interests, preferences and therefore is able to predict future behaviour.

Thus, IoB does not only depend on information that a person willingly or even knowingly enters into the system, which makes such apps much more invasive than they appear on the surface. Besides direct data collection, companies also gather valuable information about customers from data shared across connected devices; individual activities on phones and laptops are linked to voice assistants, remote cleaners and car cameras, which are household devices that are around people the entire day.

Estimates from the study also said that by 2023, individual activities of 40 pc of the global population will be digitally trackable. A single smartphone, for example, can track a person’s online movements and real-time geographic positions through apps that ask for the user’s location and through social media applications popular among the youth, like Snapchat Maps.

A person simply walking around a shopping mall or public space can be tracked by their web of interconnected devices, which can then suggest, unprompted, the exact movie they would want to watch at the nearby cinema and even give discount coupons without the trouble of having to search for it. This is not solely for the user’s benefit; companies use this data to make more informed decisions and improve their service quality and value chain to ensure their businesses continue to grow in the fastest and most efficient way. By tracking consumers closely, companies hope to achieve greater sales to the same consumer, an important, if not the only, way for them to grow in saturated or mature markets, notably the developed world.

This technology has proved useful outside of commercial reasons. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has increasingly made use of IoB in the health industry, especially in contact-tracing. Sensors/RFID tags on a person or in the environment can be used to check if employees are washing their hands regularly, or computer vision can be used to regulate if employees are complying with mask protocols. Apps like Aarogya Setu in India and Corona 100 in South Korea were used extensively for a while to help keep track of infected areas and record self-quarantine of users.

But IoB is not only about benefits to the consumers or the governments. Experts worry that it is more complicated psychologically as well as ethically. Statistical studies and surveys which map everyday behaviours can only do so much, because they fall short of understanding the meaning and individualised context of people’s lives. There are increasing concerns about this large-scale gathering of information because behaviour data can allow cybercriminals access to sensitive data, who can collect and sell hacked property access codes, delivery routes, even bank access codes.

Therefore, experts warn that businesses need to be more vigilant and proactive when using such technologies. Cyber security apps and new software are being developed to combat this and may help protect the user from crimes such as fraud, using a mix of techniques that are anonymity-based and policy-based. One of the main issues that Indian citizens had with Aarogya Setu was its source code being secret, which made it difficult to identify any possible problems with data privacy, and led to organisations such as the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) appealing against making the app mandatory. Thus, strong cybersecurity protocols and transparency towards consumers may be one method by which businesses and the government can use IoB in an effective but still safe way.

As the march of IoB continues across the world, it is also paramount for legislators to set clear boundaries for companies as well as the governments in how much data can be collected, how to take explicit consent of each user for each data point and of course ascribe total and direct responsibility on these organisations for data security and severe penalties on companies or institutions that end up losing the data. Only with these safeguards can IoB be truly beneficial for the society.

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