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Surveillance in ubiquitous network societies: normative conflicts related to the consumer in-store supermarket experience in the context of the Internet of Things


The Internet of Things (IoT) is an emerging global infrastructure that employs wireless sensors to collect, store, and exchange data. Increasingly, applications for marketing and advertising have been articulated as a means to enhance the consumer shopping experience, in addition to improving efficiency. However, privacy advocates have challenged the mass aggregation of personally-identifiable information in databases and geotracking, the use of location-based services to identify one’s precise location over time. This paper employs the framework of contextual integrity related to privacy developed by Nissenbaum (Privacy in context: technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2010) as a tool to understand citizen response to implementation IoT-related technology in the supermarket. The purpose of the study was to identify and understand specific changes in information practices brought about by the IoT that may be perceived as privacy violations. Citizens were interviewed, read a scenario of near-term IoT implementation, and were asked to reflect on changes in the key actors involved, information attributes, and principles of transmission. Areas where new practices may occur with the IoT were then highlighted as potential problems (privacy violations). Issues identified included the mining of medical data, invasive targeted advertising, and loss of autonomy through marketing profiles or personal affect monitoring. While there were numerous aspects deemed desirable by the participants, some developments appeared to tip the balance between consumer benefit and corporate gain. This surveillance power creates an imbalance between the consumer and the corporation that may also impact individual autonomy. The ethical dimensions of this problem are discussed.

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The author wishes to thank the reviewers of this article. The author also wishes to thank the participants who took part in this study and the National Science Foundation Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST) Women’s Institute for Summer Enrichment. Preliminary findings of this study were published by the author in the Proceedings of the Pacific Telecommunications Council Annual Conference. Honolulu, Hawai‘i. January, 2012. “Privacy and the emerging Internet of Things: Using the framework of contextual integrity to inform policy.”

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Correspondence to Jenifer Sunrise Winter.

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Winter, J.S. Surveillance in ubiquitous network societies: normative conflicts related to the consumer in-store supermarket experience in the context of the Internet of Things. Ethics Inf Technol 16, 27–41 (2014).

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  • Privacy
  • Surveillance
  • Internet of Things
  • Framework of contextual integrity
  • Radio-frequency identification (RFID)
  • Location-based services (LBS)