Prepared or not, the Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the fast-growing technologies taking over the world. Currently, many devices can be interlinked to communicate with each other through a network, from smartphones to robots, smart homes to smart healthcare and smart security to smart agriculture. Morgan Stanley via British Insider intelligence estimated that there will be more than 75 billion active IoT devices by the end of the year 2020, which will require 7 active IoT devices per person . With such increasing projection, IoT will play a very vital role in everyones life in the coming years.
IoT contains important information of individuals that should be confidentially kept and used ethically. Ethics is a branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles, by providing the codes of ethics and conduct which help engineers on deciding what is right and wrong during the exercise of their work. Larry Niven once said that ethics changes with technology. IoT is a rapidly growing technology that refers to putting the internet into ordinary devices and services for human use, there is an urgent need to look at ethics in line with the fast-growing technology.
This essay examines the critical ethical issues in the use and application of IoT in engineering which will help industry, government, engineers, researchers and students understand the relationship between IoT and ethics in a society. IEEE code of ethics clearly states that all engineers in the world must commit to the highest ethical and professional conduct, but there are still many ethical issues that have resulted from the use of IoT in a society .
First and foremost, IoT hinders personal privacy for individuals across the world. It uses localization technologies such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) which uses satellites in space to monitor both the living and nonliving things on earth and in space . Verizon Company which deals with home automation systems offers surveillance cameras and TV sets which can monitor peoples homes which in the end leaves people without privacy . There have been several hacking cases in the world today where malicious people gain unauthorized access to personal or company information. For example on 9th April 2011, the website of Bank of America was hacked by a Turkish hacker and the bank lost all its customer’s information . This year in June, a hacker behind the 2015 TalkTalk cyber-attack in the UK was sentenced. It is believed that the attack cost the company millions of losses after the personal details of over 157,000 customers were stolen . The code of ethics for IEEE requires that engineers to avoid injuring others, their property, reputation, or employment by false or malicious action and I believe this is not considered in the above privacy cases.
Secondly, although the use of IoT technology in agriculture has a potential to transform the farming methods for increased productivity , there is a growing concern for the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) without taking into account the GMO consequences to human life and the environment . The IEEE code of ethics emphasizes that engineers to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, to strive to comply with ethical designs and sustainable development practice and disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment. For example, in Uganda, there is still a fierce debate regarding the use of GMOs in the agricultural sector and it is believed that GMOs have got consequential side effects on human life.
Besides, according to the Association for Psychological Science in the United States, there is great public opposition to the use of GMOs in agriculture . I, therefore believe that this is a problem that needs to be resolved if the audience is to benefit to the IoT. Similarly, there is a team of young talented computer engineering students at Makerere University working on an artificial intelligence-based project for detecting early diseases for passion fruits. They usually visit farmers and collect data regarding the passion fruits especially the leaves, then they use IoT to predict the chances of getting infected with the diseases. It is indeed an interesting agriculture-based project which will uplift the outputs from passion fruit farms and in the process boasts the entire countrys agricultural sector. The bigger ethical question which remains is how safe is the collected data from the passion fruit growers, such that it is not shared with wrong people or even other competing farmers which in the end poses a threat to the agricultural sector.
In addition to the above, IoT has the potential to improve the efficiency and delivery of health services, but there is a risk of compromising confidentiality with regards to the clients information. For example, the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology can be used to insert microchips or tags into humans and animals for medical purposes but this information from the chips can be used maliciously for other purposes such as monitoring a persons movement without his or her consent. There is also another growing field called Mobile Health (mHealth) where patients can be diagnosed and receive treatment remotely using mobile phones at their comfort zones however data shared between the patients and medical personnel may be subjected to intrusion. This, therefore, endangers peoples privacy contrary to the code of ethics which requires them not to disclose such information to other parties.
Furthermore, there is a growing belief that IoT devices and services are predominant in developed countries compared with developing countries, but its not doing well in these areas as well. IEEE Code of ethics advocates for a fair distribution and treatment for all persons regardless of race, national origin, religion, age, disability, and gender expression. However, even for the sake of the developed countries, IoT is more in urban centers than in rural areas, for example, in Ireland there are many IoT devices and services in Dublin than in the rural communities of Limerick, Cork which is a subject of imbalance and discrimination. In Uganda there quite many IoT devices in Kampala which is the capital city and in other major towns such as Gulu, Masaka, Mbale, Mbarara and Jinja. Internet access in remote areas such as Karamoja and Teso regions is still a major problem hence there few IoT devices in those areas. Mobile networks for communication are still a challenge and people have limited access to social media applications such as Facebook and WhatsApp. This indeed shows the unfair IoT distribution in the community at large.
Also, mobile phones have been greatly used in this era of IoT to make communication simple, affordable and reliable. However on many occasions, information has been leaked from such gadgets. The cost of mobile phones is becoming cheaper each day that passes while the services offered on the same device are growing at a faster rate. For example, a person can share information using a smartphone with applications such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber, tinder, and Imo but this is risky. Enhanced phone features like voice recorders have been used on several occasions to record call conversations without seeking permission from the involved parties. Many governments across the world continue to tap phone conversations for their respective citizens in the event of keeping security which endangers citizens’ privacy. For example in Uganda, a sex tape for a prominent musician Desire Luzinda was leaked to the public via social media which spoilt her career up to date. It was therefore ethically wrong to share someones private life with the public.
In addition to the above, there are smart cities where many aspects of life are automated, IoT has brought about new developments such as cable cars and autonomous vehicle technology where a vehicle can guide or drive itself without the need for human interaction. There is a lot of research going on in Ireland especially at the University of Limerick regarding the use of driverless cars to provide safer transport which is less congested and environmentally friendly. There are always ethical problems with autonomous vehicle technology which requires a need to balance between the safety and mobility of other road users such as the cyclists and the pedestrians. For example, there is a level 3 ready autonomous car A8 from Audi which has the potential to drive itself in conditions where it assumes control over all other safety conditions including the environmental factors. Engineers also have got to consider trade-offs between mobility and environmental impact from autonomous technology. It is believed that this technology may have a far-reaching impact on energy use and environmental pollution hence posing a danger to the people living in society.
In Conclusion, since IoT is still growing linearly, there is an urgent need to protect the people and the devices that use services from this interesting technology in health, communication, and agriculture. Industry, government, engineers, researchers and students must make correct and sound ethical decisions regarding the use and application of IoT in daily life. Freeman Dyson said that Technology must be guided by ethics if it is to do more than provide new toys for the rich. Stringent measures should, therefore, be put in place to ensure that all beneficiaries to IoT devices and services are fully protected by effective solutions with privacy-enhancing technologies like encryption and electronic signatures to enable IoT users enjoy the tremendous benefits of IoT with good ethical practices.