Internet of Things, Privacy

Who Owns Your Personal Data in the Cloud?


People in California abruptly woke up in the middle of the night August 24, 2014. The sudden wake-up was caused by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake.

Jawbone gave us a glimpse into the future after this earthquake. Jawbone quickly released aggregate sleeping pattern data collected from Jawbone UP24 users living in the affected areas. The graph shows that sleep was interrupted at the precise time of the earthquake and people woke up at the same moment.

Jawbone UP24 allows me to keep track of steps taken and hours of daily sleep as this device in the wrist collects data about my movements 24/7. The data are automatically uploaded into Jawbone’s cloud via mobile application.

This device with its data in the cloud is a just one example of the massive cloud ecosystems which individual consumer will need to master in the near future. As sensors, wearables and smart devices start appearing at our homes, we need to consider what happens to our personal data in the cloud.

It’s No Longer Just Smartphones and PCs Who Collect Your Data

Much of our data we daily deal with is already stored in the cloud by email providers like Gmail, social media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and storage providers like Dropbox and Google Drive. You make a conscious decision to make a status update or to send a tweet, one at the time. Updates are made using a PC, a smartphone or a tablet.

This situation begins to change when smart devices and wearables are connected to our home network. Digital and physical world are converging much closer to each other. Smart devices like Jawbone UP24 or Nest thermostat will automatically perform the data collection.

Smart devices collect large volumes of data which include for example:

  • Location-awareness: Where is the car right now? What is the current speed?
  • Movements: Where did the watch owner go to? When did the car approach home?
  • Actions: What time were the lights switched on in the morning?
  • Space-awareness: Who is present in the room? Which rooms are empty?
  • External conditions: What is the humidity and temperature in each room?
  • Personal health: What is the pulse and heart rate? How much exercise does the person daily do and when? Does the person wake up during the night?

As these examples show, automatically collected data can be highly private. Data is getting really up close and personal with wearables like the upcoming Apple Watch which participates in Apple’s new HealthKit platform.

What Happens to the Data in the Cloud

Companies and organizations having access to this kind of big data can provide different types of data analysis based on the data collected from individual devices. This can lead to new insights for example in healthcare and energy sectors. Sleep analysis after the California earthquake is just one example of the possibilities for advanced analytics.

When talking about deeply personal data, privacy issues must not be forgotten. Several device and cloud providers assure that data are kept in safe and intact. These are still promises and remain to be validated. Legal protections do not yet exist which would prevent us from the misuse of data.

Even a thought of a service provider having a potential to sell or provide the highly private data to third parties could prevent a large-scale adaption of smart devices at home.

According to Reuters, Facebook is planning to enter healthcare. This raises a few eyebrows after the experiment with positive and negative emotions by Facebook was published.

Who Really Owns My Data?

Let’s say I’ve settled to Apple’s ecosystem and have acquired all the possible Apple devices. What if I for some reason wanted to move to Google’s ecosystem? Or what if I would Iike to move my data from Jawbone UP24 to Apple Watch?

Plenty of data has been collected during the device usage period which raises a few questions:

  • What happens to the data collected during the past years from my home automation devices?
  • Can settings and configurations from my devices including thermostats be applied to new similar devices in the other ecosystem?
  • Can the trained machine learning models from each device can be transferred to the other ecosystem?
  • What happens when an item is sold as second-hand to another person? Will the data with its relationships to other items be moved as well? Can the device’s data be reset?
  • When getting rid of an old smart device, can the associated data in the cloud be permanently removed?

The answer is real simple: you just cannot move or get rid of the data. You no longer – and never did – own your own data collected from your home and wearables. Even if the raw, collected data was available, there are no common standards for data conversion between different ecosystems.

This is the situation as of today. Things can however change, if and when common rules and standards would be defined for the core data.

What Happens in One Year? What About in Three Years?

We are now entering a new territory of quantified life. Personal data is being mixed with data collected from our surrounding devices at home and its vicinity. Since the data are automatically collected from the various devices at home, the volumes are mind-boggling. We have not yet seen what really can be achieved with this new type of combined, automatically incoming data from familiar and new data sources.

Next time you’re buying a smart device or wearable, do read the license agreement super carefully.

This is the second blog post in the blog series discussing home automation today and in the future. The first post was:

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