EU investigates internet's spread to more devices

Alarm clock
Image caption The spread of the net could let alarm clocks change their settings if an appointment is cancelled

The European Commission is extending a probe into the spread of the internet.

The regulator says it expects an explosion in the number of household appliances and other devices connected to the net before 2020.

It is launching a consultation over controls of the way information is gathered, stored and processed, saying it wants to "ensure the rights of individuals are respected".

The public is being invited to send in its views before a 12 July deadline .

The commission says that the average person living within the 27-nation bloc has at least two devices connected to the net at present - typically a computer and smartphone.

It expects the figure to rise to seven by 2015, with a total of 25 billion wirelessly connected to the net worldwide. By the end of the decade it says that could climb to 50 billion.

"If a university teacher cancels a morning lecture because they are sick, students' alarm clocks and coffee machines could automatically be reset," it gives as an example.

"If an elderly person forgets to take an essential pill, a warning message could be sent to a close family member."

"People need to know and trust that this sort of change is one they are comfortable with, and it's important to have that conversation now," a spokesman told the BBC.

Energy-efficient chips

The spread of wireless-connected devices has been dubbed "the internet of things" and has previously identified as potential catalyst to the economy.

Arm Holdings - the British computer chip designer - is at the forefront of efforts to spur on the tech.

It announced a new "Flycatcher" architecture in March, paving the way for licensees to build the "most energy-efficient microprocessors" to date.

The US chip-maker Intel also announced a partnership with the Institute of Automation of Chinese Academy of Sciences earlier this week to create a research centre in Beijing to create related core technologies.

Risk and reward

Previous technological advances have led to new legislation.

A recent example is the EU's Privacy and Data Communications Directive which requires users to give permission for websites to install tracking-cookies into their browsers. The directive was introduced last year and comes into effect in the UK on 26 May.

"From a legal point of view the internet of things is the next big thing," said Dai Davis, an information technology lawyer at Percy Crow Davis.

"Usually European legislation lags years behind technology - we have seen that with recent data privacy regulation. It is worth noting that this won't be the first time the EU has consulted on the subject - but we have yet to see significant action."

London-based campaign group Privacy International said it intended to take part in the process.

"Technologies like these need to be carefully designed if they are to enhance our private lives, not endanger them," said spokeswoman Emma Draper.

"Sharing highly sensitive personal data - like medical information - to a network of wireless devices automatically creates certain risks and vulnerabilities, so security and privacy need to be built in at the earliest stages of the development process."

The commission said it plans to publish its recommendations by the summer of 2013.

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