IoT Essential Truths: Just Because You Can Do It Doesn’t Mean You Should

Posted on 9th December 2013 in Essential Truths

Whilst (aren’t I the Anglophile?) walking the dog this morning, the “social sensing badges” that I’d slammed a while ago as crossing my personal line in terms of invasion of privacy popped into my head.

As I thought more about these monitors of your personal interactions in the workplace, I thought that one of my comments about them deserved elevation to the level of one of my “Essential Truths” about the IoT (i.e., such basic principles that they should be considered throughout the design and launch of any IoT service):

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it!

Primarily, it seems to me this adds a crucial ethical component to the IoT, which should never be far from our thoughts because of the omnipresent issues of privacy and security that pervade so many IoT services. In the case of the “social sensing badges,” Sociometric Solutions paints a strong case for how their badges can lead to a more productive workplace, but, IMHO, that fails to outweigh the omnipresent invasion of workers’ personal privacy that the badges represent, especially in today’s poisonous workplace environment (that’s my judgment: love the humane workplaces that prove me wrong!).

Medical solutions should particularly be subject to this test, because the information they gather and diffuse is so personal and potentially harmful. I am a huge fan of these solutions — many can literally save your life, while most will improve your quality of life — but I think they carry with them the need to place heavy emphasis on privacy and security protections if they are to be introduced.

And there’s a corollary to this Essential Truth that companies need to keep in mind:

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean I have to buy it!

That one comes to mind every time I read a breathless new update on the IoT’s Holy Grail. I speak, of course, of the “smart refrigerator!” I’ll grant you that each iteration does add more services, but suffice it to say that I ain’t making a down-payment on any of those on the market, and I doubt whether I ever will!  Why? I don’t buy a lot of prepared refrigerated foods, and I’m making at least a half-hearted effort to eat locally and farther down the food chain. Veggies and grains from the bulk bins at my store don’t come with bar codes, so I can’t personally see paying a premium for a fridge that really isn’t going to fulfill the promise of monitoring my food intake and generating my shopping list. If you’re contemplating a new IoT solution, make sure it’s really worthwhile, vs. just a gimmick.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of whether a new technology is essentially good or evil (except for the A-bomb…) or whether it’s ethically neutral.  However, I do think that the IoT, by virtue of its great strength of generating such high volumes of real-time data, does continually bump up against ethical questions, so it’s just smart policy to constantly think of whether you should do it just because you can.

What do you think? I’d love your thoughts on this important issue!

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Here’s where I draw the IoT privacy line! social sensing badges

Posted on 5th November 2013 in Internet of Things, management, privacy


I had the same reaction to this story by the Boston Globe‘s Scott Kirsner (“Is this a management breakthrough, or Big Brother in the workplace?” — sorry, no linkie: it only appears to be available through the subscribers’ archive) that a lot of people did to the story about the hacked, un-encrypted baby monitor: this is the Internet of Things run amok.

Sociometric Badge

It seems that a local firm, Sociometric Solutions,  has come up with a “social sensing badge” that employees would wear around their necks. According to the firm’s CEO, Ben Waber, before long “every employee ID badge will have sensors in it.” Holy George Orwell!

As Kirsner said, “You might call it the NSA style of management.” My thoughts exactly.

Here’s how this demonic gizmo works:

“…the badges rely on infrared sensors to know when you are clustered with other people in a meeting or conversation. While they don’t record conversations, they capture data about how often you talk versus listen, how frequently you interrupt people, and your tone of voice.” (my emphasis)

This is supposed to lead to a more humane workplace, that “.. will enable companies to try different approaches to office design, corporate hierarchies, and perhaps even work schedules.”


I’m reminded of a story a friend tells. He had a very talented employee who was anti-social, and frequently would work in the middle of the night, even sleep at his desk. Unconventional, but absolutely essential to the department. How long do you think he’d last after wearing one of these badges? Turn in your sociometric badge as you pick up your last check, anyone with ADHD or Aspergers — and probably a lot of others who wouldn’t fit some manager’s pre-conception of the ideal employee!

According to workplace consultant Alexandra LaMaster, of OrgSpeed:

“When there’s trust between an employer and employee, and they see that you’re moving people around because you want more communication across departments, or to achieve some kind of business result, that’s one thing. If there’s a lack of trust, people might feel they’re being policed.”

I’ve seen far too many dysfunctional workplaces — particularly in low-status companies such as retailers — to subscribe to the idealized view of how this device could be used. As far as I’m concerned, the sociometric badge is one example of technologists (IMHO, shame on MIT Prof. Sandy Pentland, who is a co-founder and chairman of the company’s board, and who I’d always counted among the IoT Good Guys) who get the idea that because you can do something, you should do it.

You shouldn’t.

What do you think?
">Stephenson blogs on Internet of Things Internet of Things strategy, breakthroughs and management