The Internet of Things (IoT), is one of the fastest-growing and spreading fields of technological advancement. It is going to change a lot of every human’s everyday life features, everywhere.
IoT puts some important technological advancements like Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, as well as the Internet in the heart of the physical environment that surrounds every person in the world. This physical environment is represented by hundreds and thousands of devices and equipment used habitually for performing functions ranging from the very simple like freezing foods, to the most complicated like regulating the consumption of energy and infrastructure facilities.
By providing everyday life devices and equipment with different sensor capabilities and transforming their inputs into data that can be exchanged via the Internet, IoT performs the largest networking operation known in history. The estimations of the number of new nodes on the network added and going to be added by smart devices and equipment range between tens and hundreds of billions.
Such huge developments undoubtedly intersect with most social phenomena, and gender in their forefront. As other phenomena related to the development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the areas of intersection between IoT technologies and gender are divided into: the gender gap in the industry, and accordingly putting the needs and demands of women and girls into consideration in the processes of design, production, and marketing; and the gap in spreading and use which places one step or more behind men in assimilating the new technology and gaining the skills for using, dealing with and affecting the course of development of it, in addition to the threats and negative effects of the IoT technologies on women and girls.
This paper seeks to present a reading of the intersection between IoT and gender. Specifically through the points outlined in the previous paragraph. The paper also focuses on both the new threats introduced by IoT on the right to privacy for women and girls and the dangers related to the widening of violence, abuse, and harassment targeting women and girls.
What is IoT?
There is no unified, unanimously accepted definition of the term “Internet of Things”. The terms under which products can be categorized abound, while they can be also categorized under the term IoT. An example is describing any physical product or structure as smart, which ranges from smartwatches to smart cities.
This leads to great differences in estimating the size of IoT as an industry and how spread are its products. The great generality of the term shows in using the word “Thing”, which in itself means nothing in particular, but means everything and anything that you may think of. In truth, this is the closest definition to IoT. It is a term that refers to everything and anything as long it is provided with the capabilities of gathering data from its surroundings and exchanging this data through connecting to the Internet or any other network.
Among the definitions of IoT is that it is a concept pointing out the mutual connection among identifiable things capable of communicating with each other via the Internet. Such things might be physical or virtual, which can gather and send data using ICT. The term IoT was first popularized by Kevin Ashton in 1999. Since then the concept of IoT has evolved in different trajectories so that there is no longer one definition of it.
E. Fleisch defines IoT as a network of things that each can be identified and at the same time are compatible so that they can communicate with each other. They are connected to services that work on the Internet. Both I. and K. Lee provide another definition of IoT, describing it as a system that generates interaction among physical and virtual things to gather and send data. These definitions emphasize the connected nature of IoT and the role of communication and data exchange among things.
IoT offers many opportunities as well as challenges to its users, whether they are individuals or organizations. It makes it possible to communicate with anything and anyone at any time or place. On one hand, this leads to the development of many innovative applications and services that were not imaginable before. On the other hand, however, the adoption of IoT on a wide scale leads to raising many legitimate concerns about security, privacy, authentication, and data recognition. These concerns not only threaten the privacy and security of direct users but also those around them. Hence, ensuring the security and privacy of IoT devices is vital for their successful implementation.
The concept of IoT expands beyond both the Internet and the web to the physical world by deploying spatially distributed devices each has different identification, sensor, and functional capabilities. This allows connecting digital entities (virtual entities like different software) and physical ones, like home appliances, cars, and others, through suitable ICT. The integration of IoT technologies and their associated communication solutions needs many elements like the technologies of identification and tracking, wired and wireless sensors, and communication protocols.
IoT establishes a new form of the human environment. In this environment both the social and technological aspects overlap in an unprecedented manner through the fast flow of data among devices and equipment on one side and among people on the other. Accordingly, the design of the different components of IoT should follow a human-centric approach with clear principles.
IoT is not limited to one field or application. It has consequences and effects in many fields like cloud computing, wearable technology, computer security, AI, and geospatial analysis. IoT makes it possible to manage energy, equipment, and security smartly at home. It can also improve the distribution of goods, and supply chains through the system monitoring capabilities.
Gender Gap in IoT
There are many forms of the gender gap in IoT in the industry and use, taking into consideration that these forms are connected so that they can’t be separated and none of them can be dealt with in isolation. The gender gap in the IoT industry and many related technologies creates many phenomena that contribute to the gender gap in accepting and using the products of this industry. On the other hand, the feedback, or the lack of it, created by the gender gap in use contributes to reinforcing the dominant trend in the industry, which tends to ignore women’s needs.
As with any other technology, there is a large gender gap in the IoT industry. This gap is an extension of the gender gap in the ICT field with the addition of the gender gap in the technology industry concerned with the production of devices and equipment that constitute the basic components of the IoT industry.
This gender gap in different technology fields reflects the difference in the ratio of women willing to be involved in the STEM fields, which is a phenomenon that has social roots leading to girls refraining from choosing educational courses related to these fields.
The men’s domination in the processes of design and development of products related to IoT leads to a general tendency to ignore women’s needs and preferences during these processes. This, in turn, makes these products not satisfying for women, hence, they are not willing to use them.
The different aspect of the incompatibility of IoT products with women’s needs and preferences includes
- Complexity: Designers of some IoT products assume a minimum familiarity with the use of digital technology in general and skills in using their user interfaces. This contradicts the daily intensity of women’s exposure to digital technology, which might be limited compared to men for several social reasons.
- Addressing privacy and security requirements: Women tend to care more for privacy and security requirements when they evaluate different products in comparison to men. Because most IoT product designers are men, their care for these requirements is usually less than what is required for women to accept them.
Ignoring women’s needs and preferences in the processes of design and development of IoT products reflects in the percentage of women willing to use them. Even when going over the barrier of complexity mentioned above, many women find that these products don’t meet enough security and privacy requirements.
This situation exacerbates the gender gap in the use of IoT products in two ways. First, it leads to women not acquiring the skills needed to use these products, which makes women less willing to use them. Second, it leads to less feedback from women about these products, which means that designers do not have enough information to take women’s needs and preferences into account when designing them.
While there are policies and procedures concerning the IoT industry that can be implemented to deal with the gender gap, the complete abolition of it hangs on dealing with the social and cultural roots of its causes.
The industry can implement some measures to get rid of the gender gap, which include:
- Attracting more women to work in R&D teams.
- Offering training opportunities to close the gap in the number of women specialized in related technology fields.
- Caring for the aspects that studies have proved they have an important role in the gender gap in the use of IoT products, especially in providing enough guarantees for protecting the user’s privacy and security.
- Depending on polls and questionnaires of different groups of women to get a better idea of their needs and preferences and considering them in the design and development phases.
IoT and Privacy
The concept of privacy when it comes to digital technologies is generally related to the individual’s right to have full and exclusive control over access to her own data, whether they were personal or owned by her like being the product of her work. It is sure that no data stored on any device connected to the Internet can be totally secured, as in not illegally accessible at all. However, taking the right measures for securing data privacy can limit its exposure to breaches considerably.
Many of these measures are the responsibility of the designers and developers of devices and applications. Their failure to play this role is in itself a violation of the end user’s right to privacy, as it makes her privacy exposed to breaches, by failing to provide enough protection.
IoT expands the penetration of the Internet into private space as its devices and equipment invade this space in an unprecedented manner that can’t be compared to computers, which till recently were the only home devices connected to the Internet. IoT makes it possible for anything to be connected to the Internet from surveillance cameras used for security to home appliances, door locks, lighting fixtures, and anything imagined to be useful if remotely controlled or if data gathered through it is processed.
On the other hand, most devices connected to IoT depend on sensors that get data in different forms from the surrounding environment, unlike computers that only get data intentionally entered by the user (except when hacked). In many cases, the user is not aware of what data is gathered by IoT devices.
The networked nature of IoT devices and equipment means that one network has a large number of communication nodes connected to the external digital world. All these nodes are exposed to attacks from outside as well as hacking from other parts of the network itself. This situation is exacerbated by the different technologies used for developing different devices, which makes it impossible to use a single approach for securing them all. Accordingly, the ability of a whole network to handle any hacking attempt depends on the ability of its weakest node connected to the outer world.
Different issues related to IoT and the protection of the right to privacy are more severe when it comes to women and girls. Before anything else, women and girls are the social group targeted the most by the marketing of IoT products for personal and home use. These products range from personal gadgets monitoring physical, sexual, and reproductive health and the different home appliances.
This means that women and girls are the group most exposed to dealing daily with the devices and equipment categorized as IoT ones. This makes women and girls more exposed to any issues related to these devices and equipment including the issues related to the right to privacy.
Despite women and girls being a very important group for marketing the IoT products this didn’t lead to an obvious care for taking their needs and demands into consideration when designing these products. One of the problems when it comes to privacy in particular is that caring for it comes late and as a secondary addition to the design process. This makes IoT products, as many of the electronic products, not qualified enough to protect their users’ privacy.
Additionally, dealing with privacy in particular during any design process needs studying the different scenarios in which the user’s privacy can be threatened. Defining the precautions and measures for protecting privacy depends on dealing with these scenarios.
The low representation of women in D&D teams in technology corporations leads to the absence of their experiences in the design processes. Due to the fact that women’s experiences of privacy threats differ considerably from men’s experiences, the different scenarios of privacy threats related to women are absent in the design studies and thus aren’t taken into consideration. This causes the end product to be unqualified for providing enough protection to its women users’ right to privacy.
On the other hand, technology products are generality designed with an implied assumption that their end users are men. In addition to assuming that the user has a minimum familiarity with technology and the skills to deal with it. Accordingly, the settings for securing these productions including privacy protection by encrypting data, choosing to store it in a specific way, limiting the permissions for accessing it to specific users, and other technical details, don’t take the user’s level of skills into consideration.
For different social reasons, women and girls in their majority don’t have many opportunities to be interested in the technical details of technology products. Women and girls usually don’t have the knowledge or skills required to deal with complicated settings of many IoT devices and equipment. This leads them either to keep the default options of privacy settings, which usually don’t provide enough protection, or seek the help of others, usually men, to help them adjust these settings. This in itself constitutes a threat to the privacy of these settings and hence of the data they are supposed to protect.
Dealing with the threats to the right to privacy of women and girls, created by IoT technology, starts first with the commitment of the corporations developing its product to provide their products with the ability to provide enough and acceptable protection to privacy for users. Corporations should also take women’s and girls’ needs and their specific conditions into consideration when designing the precautions related to privacy protection.
One of the approaches that help provide an acceptable coverage of privacy requirements is Privacy by Design. This approach puts the considerations of privacy protection within the primary objectives of technology product designs since the beginning of the design process guaranteeing that they are not secondary to marginal afterthoughts.
Guaranteeing that women’s needs are within the design consideration of IoT products can’t be completed without strong participation of women in the industry itself on all levels, especially in the R&D sector. This recommendation doesn’t only guarantee the development of products that are more responsive to women’s needs but also restores the missing justice in technology industries. This also allows these industries to widen their development horizon by adding more varied experiences and skills to their workforce, which can lead to more sustainable growth and success.
Commitment of technology corporations to providing the requirements of privacy protection in their products won’t be enough without enough awareness on the side of users, to take advantage of any available capabilities for protecting their privacy and the security of their data. Spreading such awareness is the role in which civil society organizations should take part besides the concerned official state bodies, especially educational ones.
The care for attracting more girls to the study of STEM fields will provide more graduate young women qualified to join the technology industry fields. Additionally, it also provides more women with more knowledge and experience in technology fields, which spreads more awareness of these areas among other women.
Violence against women, domestic violence, and IoT
One of the most important and dangerous phenomena related to the effect of IoT on gender relations in society is the phenomenon of Technology-facilitated abuse. What is meant by this term is the technology that can exploited to practice violence and abuse against women and girls.
Among the examples of these technologies is modern communication means with the Internet at the forefront, as it provides new channels and ways for harassment, terrorizing, and practicing violence against victims mostly women and girls. In the same way, IoT opens the door widely for a large set of potentials for practicing unprecedented forms of violence and abuse against women and girls in a way that goes beyond any previous technology.
IoT devices and equipment allow large possibilities of surveillance, tracking, and stalking. Through these technologies it is possible to know the location of individuals at any time, what are they up to, and even get photos and recorded videos as per the available technological facilities. But what can be accessed through IoT devices and equipment goes even beyond this, as it allows controlling people’s lives. Electronic locks remotely controlled can be used for holding people against their will. Home appliances that can be remotely controlled can also be used to control access of individuals to food and water.
These capabilities can be used by members of the family against each other in cases of domestic violence and a stranger can also use them by hacking into these devices and equipment and controlling them.
There are many issues related to this phenomenon that have already started to grow in countries that have a wide spread of smart devices and equipment like the United Kingdom. There is a general lack of awareness of the phenomenon itself among all parties due to its recency and lack of information about it. Accordingly, women and girls themselves are not aware of the potential of being victims of such ways of violence, abuse, and harassment which makes it harder for them to take any precautions to avoid them.
There isn’t enough knowledge or awareness of this phenomenon among those working for the organizations whether governmental or non-governmental concerned with dealing with these threats targeting women and girls. Accordingly, those workers aren’t qualified to deal with the cases in which women are exposed to violence through IoT technologies. They don’t know what advice they can give to those women, or if they can interfere or report it to law enforcement bodies, especially as there are not laws covering these violation clearly. There isn’t enough knowledge among the entities supposed to organize awareness campaigns and demand legislative and policy changes to tackle this phenomenon.
There are currently some efforts that started studying the dimensions of the expected impact of the spread of IoT technologies on violence, abuse, and harassment of women and girls. This first step should be followed with several ones including transferring the acquired knowledge in the form of awareness campaigns for women, girls, and concerned entities. Following this, a plan for a strategy to combat the dangers arising from this phenomenon should be put together. Such a strategy should include a call for amending the related legislation to take into consideration the changes in the ways of committing crimes of violence, abuse, and harassment, as well as putting into place executive policies for allowing reporting and intercepting such crimes.
IoT is a technological phenomenon that is on its way to changing the daily lives of people everywhere in the world. While this phenomenon opens new horizons for the future, its emergence and evolution are still tied to today’s status quo, including the imbalances of gender equality and justice. This threatens that IoT and other rising technologies will carry the germs of inequality and discrimination against women to the future while reinforcing these phenomena and amplifying them thus erasing the achievements of long years of women’s struggle for their right to equality.
This paper has sought to provide a clear definition of what IoT is and explain the gender gap on the sides of the industry and market of IoT technologies products. The paper has also focused on two important aspects of the gender effects of IoT technologies, which are their impact on the protection of women and girls’ right to privacy and dealing with the phenomena of violence, abuse, and harassment targeting them.
In this conclusion, it should be pointed out that IoT is one of the technology fields in which a way for making private capital committed to its social responsibility is a must, especially in its processes of development, production, and marketing products in markets. Considering this responsibility to be voluntary while the impacts of private sector choices on societies all over the world and the lack of accountability tools, is becoming in itself a violation of the rights of billions of people.
Without a guarantee that the private sector is a true partner committed fully to taking responsibility for the social impacts of the technologies and products in which it has the main role in their development, production, and marketing, there is no possibility of addressing and dealing with these impacts through the resources of states and civil society alone.