Researchers want to make Internet of Things ethical

As everything from watches to refrigerators becomes connected to the internet, concerns about data security and privacy are growing. A new research project anchored at the IT University of Copenhagen will help European developers create IT services and products that meet the ethical standards of both consumers and the law.

Researchers at the IT University, together with five partners, have received €2 million from EU’s Horizon 2020 program for a project aiming to help European IoT developers build products and services that comply with ethical guidelines.

The project, called VIRT-EU, focuses on the development process for the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies –objects like smartwatches, cameras, refrigerators and Barbie dolls that are equipped with sensors and connected to the internet. Although these technologies can make life easier and better, the large amounts of data they collect can also put users at risk of surveillance and unwanted use of personal information. The project will investigate how entrepreneurs and designers of new IoT devices think about this tension – and what can be done about it.

Ethics in the design process

The researchers will engage in dialogue with the people who design these technologies, explains project lead Irina Shklovski, Associate Professor at ITU.

If we want to address what our digital future is going to look like, we need to understand the people who are building it. We also may want to intervene into their process. Because complaining about the technologies after they have been built is too late

she says.

Together with IoT developers and entrepreneurs in innovation hubs like Barcelona and London, the project partners will look at developer ethics in practice to develop guidelines and tools that will make ethical considerations such as whether and how to collect and utilize personal data, an integrated part of the design process – benefiting both users and developers.

Developers are really just doing their best. They are expected to do privacy right on top of trying to develop new technologies. We believe that we need to help those who are designing our future to design it in such a way that it will be a future in which we actually want to live

says Irina Shklovski.

What is the Internet of Things?

Internet of Things is a popular term for physical objects with sensors, which share data with other devices through the Internet. The term covers everything from mobile phones collecting location information using GPS, to trashcans automatically alerting the garbage truck when they are full.

IoT can make everyday life easier and smarter, but also raises concerns about user privacy and security as data collected by the devices can potentially be hacked or used for purposes that make users uncomfortable.

An example is the attack on the American infrastructure company Dyn in October 2016, in which hackers exploited the vulnerability of unsecured IoT cameras, DVRs and routers. As many of the passwords of connected devices had been left on ‘default’ and their firmware was not updated, it was possible for the hackers to network these IoT devices together and use them for a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. The attack brought down many major online services including Twitter, Spotify, Netflix and Amazon.

European regulatory jungle

The goal of the project is largely to support the European IoT community, which has tremendous economic potential. An EU report from 2015 estimated that the market value of the European IoT will exceed one trillion euros in 2020.

However, many companies launch their products outside Europe due to the complex EU data protection laws. The regulatory jungle will only become denser when the new General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect in mid-2018.

Startups in particular often realize that they do not have the capacity to ensure that their products comply with the European legal framework. So they go to the US to launch their product, because there is much less regulation. This means that Europeans are more likely to develop for the US market than for European market, and Europe is not well served by that

says Irina Shklovski

Ethics as a competitive advantage

Irina Shklovski hopes that the tools developed in the project will contribute to more companies choosing to stay in Europe.

I think there is enormous potential in designing technology that is ethical at its core. If the technology developed here is both innovative, high-quality and treats data in an ethical way, that’s a competitive advantage

she finishes.

Project launch on January 12 from 1.30 -3.30pm

As part of the project kick-off, experts from the VIRT-EU consortium will give four public talks on the legal, ethical and design perspectives of the Internet of Things. Read more here.

About the project

VIRT-EU is funded by a grant of 2 million euro from EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.
From ITU, researchers Irina Shklovski, Rachel Douglas-Jones and Luca Rossi and two PhD students will participate.

In addition to ITU, the project has five European partners: London School of Economics (UK), Open Rights Group (UK), Uppsala University (SE), Politechnico di Torino (IT) and Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (GB).

Further information

Irina Shklovski, Associate Professor, phone +45 7218 5363, email
Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email