Internet of Behaviors’ More Disturbing Trend

The confluence of advanced digital tools, such as computer vision, along with Internet of Things devices, data science and knowledge of human nature, is enabling the greater ability to track, analyze and prompt human behavior. The use of this approach, referred to as Internet of Behaviors, is expected to skyrocket, with an estimated 40 percent of the global population’s activities by 2023 thought to be tracked digitally to influence behavior, according to Stamford, Connecticut, research firm Gartner.

“Internet of Behaviors (IoB) consists of multiple approaches to capture, analyze, understand and respond to all kinds of digital representations of behaviors,” Gartner says. “IoB combines multiple sources of intelligence such as commercial customer data, citizen data processed by public-sector and government agencies, social media, public domain deployments of facial recognition and location tracking. From analysis of data in these myriad resources, it’s possible to tag an increasingly broad array of people’s behavior as an ‘event.’”  

In the United States, IoB methods are often being used by the commercial industry, mostly to attempt to improve customer experience, prompt sales and increase revenues. In addition to facial recognition, other biometric sensors are being employed to gauge or measure physical aspects of humans, such as body temperature or moods. This information is then added to other data and devices to influence actions.  

For example, a coffee chain is employing IoB to suggest a tailored choice of beverages to patrons, based on analysis by its IoB system and data obtained from facial recognition devices that register a customer’s gender, age and mood.   

Gartner warns that companies could be using this type of human data in both private and public domains. “Through facial recognition, location tracking and big data, organizations are starting to monitor individual behavior and link that behavior to other digital actions, like buying a train ticket,” the company says.  

Daryl Plummer, managing vice president, chief of research, and chief Gartner fellow at the company explains that with IoB, “value judgements are applied to behavioral events to create a desired state of behavior.” He warns, however, that adversarial use of IoB is increasing, where the government of China, for example, is using it to closely control its citizens’ behaviors.

“Remember when China introduced its social credit score system that keeps track of how its citizens behave and assigns scores based on their behavior?” he states. “Forgot to pay the electricity bill—minus points. Put up an anti-government social media post—minus points. Well, they plan to apply the IoB technology on a massive scale. They aim to make it possible for them to track their citizens’ loyalty to the current regime.”  

Plummer reports that this is the first time that a government “is using behavioral analysis and digital connections on such a grand scale.”  

In an area of research that is more medically focused, the RAND Corporation is exploring a related topic referred to as Internet of Bodies, also called IoB. Here, researcher Mary Lee explains that evolution of bionic technologies for the digital environment will only be increasing. “RAND researchers are studying this phenomenon and what consumers and policy makers need to know as we veer into uncharted territory,” she says. “The Internet of Bodies, or IoB, is actually an ecosystem. It’s a bunch of devices that are connected to the Internet that contain software and that either collect personal health data about you or can alter the body’s function.”

While most people can understand connecting a cardiac patient’s pacemaker to the Internet so that a physician can be notified of any heart rhythm anomalies or other issues, there are other IoB devices coming that will further prompt or influence behavior—medically. “There are pills now that have an electronic sensor that let a health care provider know whether you have taken the medication,” Lee says.

“In addition, precision medicine is the idea of creating pharmaceuticals or treatment specifically for your body, for your personalized treatment. And I think IoB could really help with that because nowadays a lot of health care is based more on average reactions, whereas with data from IoB devices, you might be able to really more precisely treat a certain disease.”

Lee warns that this mostly unregulated market poses several risks to consumers, including any data sensitivity concerns, not to mention potential cyber or other medical threats.  

“There’s not a lot of clarity into who owns the data, what happens to it, who it gets sold to, how it’s being used,” she says. “And there’s even potentially national security and global security risks.”

The RAND researcher urges the federal government to prepare to address such issues, further study the considerations and develop appropriate regulations, especially as 5th Generation mobile communication connectivity—and in the future 6G—and satellite internet capabilities increase.  

“Because policy tends to lag behind innovative technologies like this, it’s probably up to the consumers and to the health care patients to really be aware of the devices that they’re using and what is happening to their data and to know what the regulations are in their particular state because it does vary so much state by state,” Lee also advises. “Even if you think you’re not interesting or that nothing will happen with your data, there are a lot of unknowns that I think we need to be careful about.”

Any entity developing IoB platforms must also include cybersecurity and address privacy concerns at the beginning of product development, Lee emphasizes.

“A range of public- and private-sector organizations will seek to use IoB’s digital capture ability to affect or influence the behaviors of individuals or collective demographic groups,” Gartner stresses. “This goes beyond operant conditioning, which focuses on reward and punishment In the IoB. Influence can also take the form of adjusted information feeds, for example.”

Plummer and other Gartner experts published some of their IoB findings in several studies, including amongst others, “Top Strategic Technology Trends for 2021” and “Important Emerging Technologies for the Digital Workplace.” At RAND, Lee is joined by researchers Benjamin Boudreaux, Ritika Chaturvedi, Sasha Romanosky and Bryce Downing in preparing “The Internet of Bodies Opportunities, Risks, and Governance.”  

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