Whether in the form of sensors in the refrigerator which automatically order more milk or in the car sounding an alarm when the driver starts to become drowsy, "Ambient Intelligence" is the next computer technology revolution. But networked objects equipped with intelligence will only be able to establish themselves if they take proper consideration of users' misgivings, in particular with regard to data protection. This conclusion was reached by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Karlsruhe, Germany, in an investigation of safeguards in a world of ambient intelligence (SWAMI), conducted for the European Union jointly with four international institutes.

In order to gain an understanding of the economic, legal and technical obstacles involved, the institute evaluated existing projects and studies. Since there is practically no empirical experience with the technology concerned, the researchers developed a so-called "dark scenario", explains project coordinator Dr. Michael Friedewald. The objective was much more to arrive at a realistic depiction of the dangers and risks which will have to be expected in the context of ambient intelligence in everyday life. For example, the consequences of hacker attacks on traffic control systems and the impact of theft of corporate customer data were investigated in the what-if scenario.

In addition to technical risks due to the failure of increasingly complex systems and reduced freedom of choice because of predetermined selections, data protection plays a decisive role in the failure or success of ambient intelligence in all scenarios. Networking of invisible and ubiquitous computers simplifies collecting and linking data with personal profiles and can easily lead to the erosion of privacy.

At the project core, the project partners formulated recommended actions for politics, science and business, in particular regarding protection of privacy. Even though data protection laws have already existed for decades and should be modified to accommodate contemporary technical possibilities, the Fraunhofer ISI nevertheless recommended that the political sector refrain from regulating the young market for the time being, and not take legislative action until the need arises.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research.