Share story

It will help you avoid traffic jams as you travel from work to that hot new spot you’ve been dying to try out, telling you on the way about the bar’s half-price coupons and letting you check your home-video monitors while knocking back a few to see if your cat is clawing the couch again.

But it also might alert your insurer if your car is weaving when you head home and report your frequent drinking to your boss.

“It” is the Internet of Things, which promises to transform daily life, making it easier to work, travel, shop and stay healthy. Thanks to billions of connected devices — from smart toothbrushes and thermostats to commercial drones and robotic companions for the elderly — it also will end up gathering vast amounts of data that could provide insights about our sexual habits, religious beliefs, political leanings and other highly personal aspects of our lives. That creates a potentially enormous threat to our privacy — even within the sanctuary of our homes.

“These are incredibly convenient devices,” said University of Colorado law professor Scott Peppet, who has extensively researched the Internet of Things. “They are magical.”

Nonetheless, he added, “I don’t think we’re being overly reactive to say, ‘Wait a minute, what are the constraints on using that information? I just want to know what you are going to do with my data.’ ”

Just what happens to the data spewed out by all these interlinked machines is a deep concern shared by many security researchers, legal authorities, government officials and consumer advocates.

They fear the information could be used to skew our credit ratings, jack up our insurance rates, help hackers steal our money, or enable spy agencies to compile detailed dossiers on each of us.

Moreover, they say, this vast sea of data could be misused to put a high-tech twist on the age-old curse of discrimination, with unscrupulous landlords or employers excluding people based on the data they’ve secretly acquired.

Among other advantages, the devices are widely expected to improve public health by keeping patients in closer touch with doctors, reduce highway deaths by automatically braking vehicles to avoid crashes, boost food supplies by helping farmers tend their crops, and quickly notify authorities about environmental mishaps. When the nonprofit Pew Research Center queried more than 1,600 experts on the subject, 83 percent predicted the Internet of Things will “have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025.”

Yet, with devices from cars to refrigerators to coffee pots recording everything we do and transmitting the information to others, many people may find the technology unnerving.

“The idea that when I’m in my house or on my property or in my car, I’m somehow in a surveillance-free zone — no, it’s not true,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien. “We’re seeing just a tremendous explosion of surveillance.”

So much data

Although people already reveal much about themselves through their Internet searches and social-media posts, that’s nothing compared to the trove of personal data likely to be disclosed by the Internet of Things.

Even when designed for limited functions, experts say, many of these Web-linked gadgets will record whatever they see and hear in homes, which could provide detailed dossiers on the people living there, especially when combined with what’s amassed by other interconnected machines.

So how could others see that personal information?

Much of it is expected to flow directly from the gadgets to the businesses that made them. Legal experts say federal and state laws poorly regulate how the information can be used, and the companies already selling smart gadgets often are vague about what they do with the data or whether they sell it to others. Consequently, it’s possible someone’s personal details could bounce around the Internet and be accessed by countless people.

Safeguards in place?

Such firms often say they “de-identify” the data so it can’t be attributed to individuals. Yet researchers have found it’s frequently possible to “re-identify” data by combining it with other available facts. As a result, a White House report in May concluded that data re-identification “creates substantial uncertainty” about people’s ability to control their personal information.

That raises another red flag for the administration and experts in the field. The White House study warns that the growing deluge of data could result in “discriminatory outcomes for disadvantaged groups.”

All this worries Federal Trade Commission Chair Edith Ramirez.

“Will the data transmitted be shared with your insurer, who may raise your rate or cancel your policy?” she wondered aloud during a conference on the Internet of Things. “Will your TV viewing habits be shared with prospective employers or schools or with data brokers, who will put that nugget together with information collected by your parking-lot security gate, your heart monitor and your smartphone, and paint a picture of you that you won’t see, but that others will?”

Boon for advertisers

Among those hoping to gain access to the information are advertisers. They plan to parse it for details about consumers so they then can pitch them products tailored to their individual preferences via their brainy gadgets, which could result in people’s homes being deluged with ads.

Some experts fear the data gathered and shared by all these computerized gadgets also could make it easier for the government to spy on U.S. citizens. Despite the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and laws that limit domestic snooping, civil-rights groups claim that police and other government agencies in recent years have increased their monitoring of Americans in the name of national security.

Nonetheless, the technology is exploding, with research firm IDC predicting that smart, Internet-linked objects will number more than 200 billion and generate in excess of $7 trillion in annual sales by 2020.

Among the early adopters is Tom Coates, a 42-year-old former Yahoo technologist and co-founder of Product Club, which develops inventions. He has filled his San Francisco home with smart gadgets, including lights he activates by phone, a video camera that lets him remotely watch over his house and a bathroom scale that tweets his weight.

But Coates believes it’s prudent to be mindful of both the good and bad that can result from the technology.

“We need to look at its benefits” while also making sure to “look at the risks and minimize them,” he said. “We have to be part of the process of making the Internet of Things something that helps people and saves lives without damaging human rights.”