VIRT-EU project: executive summary

This report provides an overview of the key findings from the VIRT-EU research project (“Values and Ethics in Innovation for Responsible Technology in Europe”). The recently completed project, steered by six academic research institutions, has examined ethical concerns in the design and development of ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies. Tomorrow’s technology is challenging personal data protection regulations currently in place, as they are not designed to protect societies in times of an all surrounding connectivity with IT devices. In order to address emerging issues in the IoT innovation, this research assessed ethical behaviour of IoT producers (innovators, developers, etc). Understanding the production stage in this supply chain has been seen as a promising starting point to guide future IoT innovation towards being more compliant with ethical values in Europe.

IoT technology is rapidly evolving and the number of new products brought to the market is growing exponentially year over year. From mobile phones tracking a user’s location at every step, smart home devices analysing every movement in your own four walls, to wearables such as the Google Glass prototype augmenting reality – the Internet of Things utilizes Big Data to grow touch points around every human behaviour. Yet as this technical evolution is seen as beneficial for more effective and efficient communication and logistics, the continuous interconnectivity between humans and IT artifacts holds risks of breaching data privacy regulations or negatively affecting citizens living together in a society.

Cases as South Korea, currently leading worldwide in IoT technology, show that possibly not far from now smart individuals will live in smart housing complexes in smart cities. With enormous amounts of big data sets around human activity stored in clouds, regulating bodies are facing new challenges. Policymakers have to do the splits between empowering the growth of this new technology but also setting limitations at the very same time. If there will be no effective governance in the evolution of IoT in our society, data privacy is at risk, also in Europe where personal data protection is highly valued.

European policymakers have to build a guiding ecosystem for the development and design of the Internet of Things, otherwise the technological innovation will evolve far off European ethical, societal and cultural values.

In order to solve the root of the problem governance has to be located at the root of the production – in IoT these are innovators and entrepreneurs as well as software and hardware engineers. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is currently assessed as ineffective to cope with those risks, as it is focusing on setting up restrictions on what is allowed and what is not. A reactive action plan can only reduce risks, not solve them.

Overall, a change in perspective of policymakers is needed towards building an ethical design and development framework that steers IoT innovation into a compliant direction with European values. Developers need to be provided with services and tools that encourage their critical self-assessment questioning they are doing the right things, when making decisions about data sets and coding scripts. Guiding IoT producers but also empowering IoT consumers to self-assessment by affective technology governance in Europe is key to consolidate innovation management in an ethical way.


World’s Leading ‘Internet Of Things’ Tech Nation Faces Human Challenges Moving Forward

A scientific case study revealed that South Korea, currently dominating the IoT market segment in terms of growth, needs to adapt their solely technological driven strategy with a more human-centered approach. Otherwise the country will risk realizing their vision to build a smart ecosystem nationwide, which can negatively impact IoT innovations around the world. The academic VirtEU research project, led by two Danish universities, calls for drastic and immediate changes in future IoT research and development.

Donghee Shin from the Sungkyunkwan University published a case study on South Korea’s keen ambitions to become market leader in the IoT segment, showcasing ubiquitous challenges the smart technology will face when evolving in the society. In order to consolidate innovation management and enhance market acceptance, the study introduces a socio-technological framework for IoT designs moving forward.

While the Far East nation has invested massively in research and development and has been pioneering in bringing smart hardware to test markets, non-hardware aspects have been mostly neglected so far. Such are reducing the public skepticism towards technological change, but also to evaluate from where the tremendous funds can be raised for this overall digital transformation – changing urban areas into smart cities.

Shin elaborates a socio-technical framework as an assessment and forecasting tool for IoT, which highlights that both society as well as technology have to evolve in cooperation and not separately. Otherwise the growth of one party will be irrelevant for the overall innovational progress and not succeed become reality. Not only will this be a risk for South Korea’s evolution in the IoT segment, but since the country is currently acting in the role of the world’s smart technology pilot, failure could have a domino effect on the global IoT industry.

For the IoT research and development this perspective is new and combines technology interactions of users with an interdisciplinary approach from science and technology studies. Shin’s study provides valuable starting points for further investigation, both in academics as well as technology, which have yet remained unnoticed. Members of the VirtEU research project, in which two Danish universities are involved, are demanding drastic changes on the currently scattered innovation management in IoT.

The case study has been originially published in the Telematics and Informatics online journal, edition 31 (title: “A socio-technical framework for Internet-of-Things design: A human-centered design for the Internet of Things”). The author, Dr. Donghee Shin, is chairman of the Department of Interaction Science at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University. The department focuses mainly on the research areas human-technology interactions. Since the launch of the VirtEU project (“Values and Ethics in Innovation for Responsible Technology in Europe”) at the IT University of Copenhagen in collaboration with 4 other universities, both institutions have been in constant exchange.


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Baldini et al. examine in their paper “Ethical Design in the Internet of Things” (2016) a framework on how to cope with privacy risks regarding personal user data in context of the Internet of Things (IoT) evolution. Due to IoT’s rising development and the herewith growing interconnectivity between users and digital systems, data protection is facing more complex challenges. The authors introduce the ‘Ethical Design’ concept, which is an engineering type for IoT applications. In that concept users shall be in control to decide which data they want to disclose in which context when utilizing IoT products. To make these choices available to users, a feasible software architecture framework is needed. Baldini et al. elaborate a framework called Security Toolkit (SecKit), which empowers users to create custom data disclosure guidelines and furthermore to modify them on demand. In addition, the SecKit takes into consideration the varying technical proficiency of users – in relation to the ‘Digital Divide’ – by automating decisions made in the creation of an initial IoT user profile. By making users in control of their privacy policies an additional value is added in this market, which shall partially ensure that IoT supplies are being developed in such a way fulfilling user needs.

Overall the paper is crafted in an organized and comprehensive style of writing. For instance definitions and limitations are clearly stated, finished argumentations are briefly summarized and transitions in topics being discussed are explained at first.

However looking at the paper in detail, it is apparent that Baldini et al. have a frequent tendency to craft very long sentences. For instance on page 19: “The SecKit policy-based framework presented in this paper can give more control to the user and it can automate some of the complex decision processes in the interaction of the user with the IoT, but a complementary set of regulatory measures and best practices could make the application of SecKit more effective.” Breaking the sentence into two when the counter argument is introduced (“,but”) and adding an “also” to support the relation to the sentence before would have made this phrase more comprehensive: “The SecKit policy-based framework presented (…) in the interaction of the user with the IoT. But a complementary set of regulatory measures and best practices could also make the application of SecKit more effective.

Another point of critique is the economical perspective the authors incorporate. Quoting from page 5: “To address this issue, and while acknowledging that a legal framework alone will not be able to ensure this balance, we propose in this paper the expression ‘‘Ethical Design’’ for future IoT devices and services, where ‘‘ethical choices’’ made available to users within the digital architecture become an added value that users are willing to pay for, and that will ensure the needed balance.” Baldini et al. don’t have an economical background, but come from the areas computer science, public administration, service design and STS. By using the phrase “(…) added value that users are willing to pay for” they incorporate economical terms. However little evidence or limitations are stated at this passage that this added value will be a sufficient incentive to bring an ethical design concept to market acceptance. Therefore this argument falls short because customer demand for an added value is taken for granted, not taking into account other types of consumer behaviour (for instance negative or unwholesome demand). The authors could have bypassed this by changing the phrase highlighted before into a subjunctive “(…) added value that users could be willing to pay for”.

Lastly, I want to criticize the overall use of abbreviations when being mentioned multiple times. While some abbreviations such as IoT, ICT etc. are commonly known in the scientific arena, others such as PET, ECA, PDP etc. require detail knowledge. Even though mostly all abbreviations have been written in full when being introduced at first, the reader probably won’t be able to remember them all throughout the text. Forcing the reader to go back to the initial introduction of an abbreviation minimizes the text’s reader-friendliness. Of course when phrases are being mentioned very frequently and are an essential part of the argumentation, such as ‘SecKit’, it can also make sense to use commonly rather unknown abbreviations.