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What does EU regulatory guidance on the Internet of Things mean in practice? Part 1

31/10/2014
The Internet of Things (IoT) is likely to be the next big thing, a disruptive technological step that will change the way in which we live and work, perhaps as fundamentally as the 'traditional' The Internet of Things (IoT) is likely to be the next big thing, a disruptive technological step that will change the way in which we live and work, perhaps as fundamentally as the 'traditional' Internet did. No surprise then that everyone wants a slice of that pie and that there is a lot of 'noise' out there. This is so despite the fact that to a large extent we're not really sure about what the term 'Internet of Things' means – my colleague Mark Webber explores this question in his recent blog. Whatever the IoT is or is going to become, one thing is certain: it is all about the data.

There is also no doubt that the IoT triggers challenging legal issues that businesses, lawyers, legislators and regulators need to get their heads around in the months and years to come. Mark discusses these challenges in the second part of his blog (here), where he considers the regulatory outlook and briefly discusses the recent Article 29 Working Party Opinion on the Internet of Things.

Shortly after the WP29 Opinion was published, Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners from Europe and elsewhere in the world adopted the Mauritius Declaration on the Internet of Things. It is aligned to the WP29 Opinion, so it seems that privacy regulators are forming a united front on privacy in the IoT. This is consistent with their drive towards closer international cooperation – see for instance the latest Resolution on Enforcement Cooperation and the Global Cross Border Enforcement Cooperation Agreement (here).

The regulatory mind-set

You only need to read the first few lines of the Opinion and the Declaration to get a sense of the regulatory mind-set: the IoT can reveal 'intimate details'; 'sensor data is high in quantity, quality and sensitivity' and the inferences that can be drawn from this data are 'much bigger and sensitive', especially when the IoT is seen alongside other technological trends such as cloud computing and big data analytics. The challenges are 'huge', 'some new, some more traditional, but then amplified with regard to the exponential increase of data processing', and include 'data losses, infection by malware, but also unauthorized access to personal data, intrusive use of wearable devices or unlawful surveillance'.

In other words, in the minds of privacy regulators, it does not get much more intrusive (and potentially unlawful) than this, and if the IoT is left unchecked, it is the quickest way to an Orwellian dystopia. Not a surprise then that the WP29 supports the incorporation of the highest possible guarantees, with users remaining in complete control of their personal data, which is best achieved by obtaining fully informed consent. The Mauritius Declaration echoes these expectations.

What the regulators say

Here are the main highlights from the WP29 Opinion:

  1. Anyone who uses an IoT object, device, phone or computer situated in the EU to collect personal data is captured by EU data protection law. No surprises here.

  2. Data that originates from networked 'things' is personal data, potentially even if it is pseudonymised or anonymised (!), and even if it does not relate to individuals but rather relates to their environment. In other words, pretty much all IoT data should be treated as personal data.

  3. All actors who are involved in the IoT or process IoT data (including device manufacturers, social platforms, third party app developers, other third parties and IoT data platforms) are, or at least are likely to be, data controllers, i.e. responsible for compliance with EU data protection law.

  4. Device manufacturers are singled out as having to take more practical steps than other actors to ensure data protection compliance (see below). Presumably, this is because they have a direct relationship with the end user and are able to collect 'more' data than other actors.

  5. Consent is the first legal basis that should be principally relied on in the IoT. In addition to the usual requirements (specific, informed, freely given and freely revocable), end users should be enabled to provide (or withdraw) granular consent: for all data collected by a specific thing; for specific data collected by anything; and for a specific data processing. However, in practice it is difficult to obtain informed consent, because it is difficult to provide sufficient notice in the IoT.

  6. Controllers are unlikely to be able to process IoT data on the basis that it is on their legitimate interests to do so, because it is clear that this processing significantly affects the privacy rights of individuals. In other words, in the IoT there is a strong regulatory presumption against the legitimate interests ground and in favour of consent as the legitimate basis of processing.

  7. IoT devices constitute 'terminal devices' for EU law purposes, which means that any storage of information, or access to information stored, on an IoT device requires the end user's consent (note: the requirement applies to any information, not just personal data).

  8. Transparency is absolutely essential to ensure that the processing is fair and that consent is valid. There are specific concerns around transparency in the IoT, for instance in relation to providing notice to individuals who are not the end users of a device (e.g. providing notice to a passer-by whose photo is taken by a smart watch).

  9. The right of individuals to access their data extends not only to data that is displayed to them (e.g. data about calories burnt that is displayed on a mobile app), but also the raw data processed in the background to provide the service (e.g. the biometric data collected by a wristband to calculate the calories burnt).

  10. There are additional specific concerns and corresponding expectations around purpose limitation, data minimisation, data retention, security and enabling data subjects to exercise their rights.


 

It is also worth noting that some of the expectations set out in the Opinion do not currently have an express statutory footing, but rather reflect provisions of the draft EU Data Protection Regulation (which may or may not become law): privacy impact assessments, privacy by design, privacy by default, security by design and the right to data portability feature prominently in the WP29 Opinion.

The regulators' recommendations

The WP29 makes recommendations regarding what IoT stakeholders should do in practice to comply with EU data protection law. The highlights include:

  1. All actors who are involved in the IoT or process IoT data as controllers should, carry out Privacy Impact Assessments and implement Privacy by Design and Privacy by Default solutions; should delete raw data as soon as they have extracted the data they require; and should empower users to be in control in accordance with the 'principle of self-determination of data'.

  2. In addition, device manufacturers should:

    1. follow a security by design principle;

    2. obtain consents that are granular (see above), and the granularity should extend to enabling users to determine the time and frequency of data collection;

    3. notify other actors in the IoT supply chain as soon as a data subject withdraws their consent or opposes a data processing activity;

    4. limit device finger printing to prevent location tracking;

    5. aggregate data locally on the devices to limit the amount of data leaving the device;

    6. provide users with tools to locally read, edit and modify data before it is shared with other parties;

    7. provide interfaces to allow users to extract aggregated and raw data in a structured and commonly used format; and

    8. enable privacy proxies that inform users about what data is collected, and facilitate local storage and processing without transmitting data to the manufacturer.



  3. The Opinion sets out additional specific expectations for app developers, social platforms, data platforms, IoT device owners and additional data recipients.


 

Comment

I have no doubt that there are genuinely good intentions behind the WP29 Opinion and the Mauritius Declaration. What I am not sure about is whether the approach of the regulators will encourage behaviours that protect privacy without stifling innovation and impeding the development of the IoT. I am not even sure if, despite the good intentions, in the end the Opinion will encourage 'better' privacy protections in the IoT. I explain why I have these concerns and how I think organisations should be approaching privacy compliance in the IoT in Part 2 of this piece.

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