From Yesterday’s Ubiquitous Computing to the ethics and security of Internet Of Things

This week, I read “Yesterday’s tomorrows: Notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision”[2]. The author exploited the contemporary practice of ubiquitous computing in three different countries with the help of cross-cultural investigations. The research proposed three main arguments related to ubiquitous computing “in the wild”.


The first is that the “Ubicomp” application should be more focused on present and everyday life matters to explore the prototypes of tomorrow’s technology and daily experience from a pervasive thinking perspective[2]. We should not stick to Weiser’s vision as a single driven factor in research and practice. If we look at the electronic products around us, ubiquitous computing already exists in our everyday life. It has simply not taken the form we initially thought it would and continued to conjure up in our vision of tomorrow.


The second argument is that the Ubicomp technology-based application and practice in the “wild” was effectively influenced by society, culture, and religion because technology is a site of social and cultural production [2]. Bell and Dourish argued that the Western culture has significantly influenced its initial application, the contemporary practice such as Disney’s Tomorrowland Theme Park is one of example. By the time being, the “Ubicomp of the present” developed various applications and purposes that that were differentiated in accordance with individual cultures and countries. The author presented a few case studies from Singapore and South Korea. For instance, the smart card ticketing system provided a platform for residents travelling between different public transportation systems seamlessly [2]. All transportation data was aggregated into a centralised data centre, and the system could dynamically adjust the traffic congestion fee depending on the real-time traffic situation . However, most Asian countries, to date, have an in-depth collective culture and custom background[1]. People use ubiquitous technology to not only resolve their own personal needs and desires, but also to adapt to the cultural environment [2]. The government of Singapore adopts censorship to regulate access to political, religious and pornographic content online resources. The practice is commonly considered as an opposition to the wildly accepted free speech value propagated by most Western countries. However, in this scenario, the use of ubiquity or information technology has to adapt to the cultural and political context.

The third argument is the availability of infrastructure. The author noted that the infrastructure influenced the form of ubiquitous computing practice in a different countries. Such factors consist of the mobile network availability, electric power supply, and so on.

Of late, the Internet of Things (IoT) has become an indispensable part of the new era of ubiquitous computing application. In addition to the practical challenges of everyday life, social culture and infrastructure, I also want to discuss a few problems and risks that arise from globalised rapid product iteration and development, worldwide services and goods deliveries. Globalised e-commerce has provided a platform for the companies developing products and services in one country and distributing it worldwide. It raises concerns about the privacy, safety and ethics of data collection, storage, and use of IoT products, as I will now discuss:

Privacy and Ethics

Many IoT products have been collecting personal data from our daily life. However, some information such as sexual experience, medical situation, and so on, are extremely sensitive data. How do we know the company will properly manage those data? Will they conduct research into the data without our informed consent? When the companies supply these products and services from a different country; there are fewer opportunities for the consumer to query or investigate such concerns. Another ethical issue is that of pervasive data collection. Ubicomp products are becoming more and more invisible now, especially when we walk into a Ubicomp environment, and our biological data (face, gait, heartbeat, and so on) might be collected without our consent.

Image Source: [4]

Data storage and use

If the collected information is stored in another country, have the companies encrypted the privacy-related data? How do they manage the backup of customer data? For a country with less security and privacy awareness and regulation, the data might be located in a high risk of leakage or stolen.

Safety and Security

Wifi-connected house appliances are becoming increasingly popular. Turning on/off a kettle remotely is no longer a difficult task. If these products were part an insecure system, they may be running the risk of being compromised by a hacker who for instance could turn on a kettle without water.

Image Source:  [3]

As mentioned earlier, I agreed that the application of ubiquitous technology should focus on the everyday life context by taking into consideration the culturess, laws and customs of different countries. We should also consider privacy, ethics and safety issues when we carry out research into product design and development.

[1]         CUI, Y., CHIPCHASE, J., and ICHIKAWA, F., 2007. A cross culture study on phone carrying and physical personalization. Usability and Internationalization. HCI and Culture, 483-492.

[2]         GENEVIEVE, B. and PAUL, D., 2007. Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision. Personal and ubiquitous computing 11, 2, 133-143.

[3]        CAVE, H., 2017. HardSploit: A Framework To Audit IoT Devices Security.

[4]        SCHEDULE, S., 2017. Rating the IoT: How Do We Test Consumer Privacy?


Author: Bing Zhai

One response to “From Yesterday’s Ubiquitous Computing to the ethics and security of Internet Of Things”

  1. Simon Bowen says:

    Thanks for this, Bing. You provide a comprehensive summary of Bell & Dourish’s paper, and rightly note concerns that the growing Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure raises. I would encourage you to go a little further to make some links between the two. Bell & Dourish’s paper is now ten years old, so how does the “vision of Ubiquitous Computing” need to change to reflect new technological developments (such as IoT) and new understandings of people’s use of technology?

    You note concerns on privacy, security, ethics etc. These are already much discussed in the UbiComp literature – e.g. a search for “privacy” in the UbiComp conference proceedings gives 187 results ( ). So, where do you fit within this? You highlight Bell & Dourish’s observation that Weiser’s original UbiComp vision imposes Western cultural values. So, one thing you might consider is how the handling of privacy, security, ethics (etc.) in the IoT might also need more careful attention to cultural and social settings? I.e. update Bell & Dourish’s argument.

    A couple of smaller comments: Provide a reference for the paper, the first time you mention it, and use “Bell & Dourish” or “the authors” instead of the author – there are two of them.

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