In Today’s Internet of Things, YOU Are the Thing

The Internet of Things was a hot item at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. A vast array of Internet-enabled devices was on display, everything including the Baby Glgl smart bottle holder (it tells your smartphone if your baby’s bottle isn’t at the optimal angle), the Belty (it automatically loosens your belt if you overindulge at a meal), to Whirlpool’s “detergent assistant,” a feature on one of its high-end washers, that can order detergent when your stock is running low.

Of course, a slew of more useful network-enabled devices was also on display, including gizmos for monitoring health, home-monitoring items, and more. But the theme here is that the Internet of Things seems to be at that stage in the adoption cycle where manufacturers and inventors are hell-bent on network-enabling ALL THE THINGS in the hope that, someday, the market will tell us what actually makes sense, according to the ancient adage: “Network it all! Let the market sort it out.”

While the market is busy sorting out just what makes sense in the Internet of Things via the proxy of what we consumers will actually buy, I keep thinking that the Internet of Things, as it exists today, is really the Internet of You. Much as with Facebook or Google, you, the consumer, are the “thing” being networked. (The CEO of Jawbone claims this proudly in a January 5 column in the Huffington Post; I am not quite as sanguine.)

Here’s what I mean. The ubiquitous smartphone that so many of us carry around is giving off endless data about you, harvested by smart retailers and others. Your phone, the most networked thing in any of our lives, is a proxy for you. Here’s an example. Several years ago, I went to my local Kohl’s in search of some shoes. On entering the store, I saw an advertisement that I could text a phrase to a certain number to receive 15% off that day’s purchase. I did so, of course, not thinking through the reason that Kohl’s — a consummate retailer — would be offering a surprise additional discount to someone who was already in the store.

Later, it dawned on me. My desire to save a few bucks on that shopping trip gave Kohl’s the ability to connect my location in the store, my cell phone number, my cell phone’s MAC (which the wireless network in the store could pick up), and my purchases (when I used the coupon at checkout). If I paid by debit or credit card (which I did), Kohl’s had opportunity to capture my name, and by extension, all sorts of additional information about me. Not only that, but thanks to the cell phone metadata, assuming they had installed inexpensive wireless devices around the store in each department to gather data, they would know pretty well where I was in the store and how much time I spent in each section. As it turns out, this is almost certainly what was happening. As early as summer 2013, The New York Times was reporting on this sort of technology.

This sort of user tracking is common across many retailers. If your cell phone is turned on in a store, you can be certain that information about where your phone goes and where it spends time is being tracked, even if it’s anonymous. If you pull up a coupon on your phone to be scanned at checkout, all your in-store behavior is suddenly directly connected to you, the individual — to be used across time and space.

This does not even scratch the surface of what could be done by legally empowered law enforcement or other, less legally grounded, agencies.

I do not suggest you leave your smartphone at home, or event put it in airplane mode when you walk into a store. But I do want to highlight that the Internet of Things, as described in the media, is really two approaches. One is using your smartphone as a proxy for you — the Internet of You. The other is using the network and a computer to interact and learn from your environment — the Internet of Things. Don’t confuse one for the other and be discouraged about the entire concept based on the former.