Internet of things presents CIOs with both technical and ethical questions

Chamberlain Group's garage door opener lets consumers monitor and control their garage doors via Android and Apple mobile phones. It's convenient for customers, but what happens to the data collected?

Chamberlain Group CIO Bill Radon met with a team of engineers and IT managers in 2012, asking what was next for the company, a leading maker of residential and commercial garage door openers.

Earlier, the team had delivered an Internet of Things device called MyQ Gateway to connect customers' smartphones to a narrow set of garage door products. Now Chamberlain wanted to build a device to connect with most garage door openers, even those from competitors. The result: MyQ Garage, which lets users monitor and control their garage doors with an Android or iOS smartphone.

Selling through retailers like Apple and Best Buy has increased Chamberlain's sales, Radon says, though the private company won't release numbers. It has also put Radon under pressure to meet back-end IT demands to monitor thousands of devices worldwide, every few seconds.

Every time a garage door sensor pings, data moves through the customer's Wi-Fi to the cloud, prompting Chamberlain's data center to send an alert back to the customer's phone.

An estimated 26 billion devices -- everything from coffeemakers to cars -- will be connected to the Internet worldwide by 2020, Gartner predicts. Scott Peppet, a professor of law at the University of Colorado, worries about long-term plans for Internet of Things data.

Companies should have a plan to destroy what's collected in the cloud after a certain time period, he says, and be clear with customers about how they use their data. Data collected by companies about when a clothes dryer turns on or when a garage door opens can be used later to draw inferences about people involved in legal cases, which is a privacy issue consumers should consider, he says.

MyQ Garage's interface appears on a phone as a picture of a garage door. A time stamp and visual cues show when the door is open or closed. Chamberlain works with startup Arrayent to pass data from the devices to Chamberlain's back-end systems.

"In just a second or two, I need to be able to go through the network into the cloud to authenticate both the device and the homeowner and push the response back to the garage door opener," Radon says.

Collecting customer data from sensors "is a responsibility," he says. Chamberlain hasn't done any heavy-duty data mining or cross-selling yet, Radon says. But future plans might include notifying Chamberlain's customers when a garage door is about to break down.

The company is also exploring how to use MyQ Garage to track family members so a mother, say, could be alerted when her child gets home from school.

Companies walk a fine line between violating customer privacy and offering something they want. Chamberlain's marketing department tracks customer feedback on social media websites like Facebook. For example, customers were frustrated with security settings, though the issue is now resolved.

"It's not all roses," Chamberlain says. "This stuff is new. We're trying to learn."

Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

New! Download the CIO March/April Digital Magazine