The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the consumer, manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices. Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure.
Things, in the IoT, can refer to a wide variety of devices such as heart monitoring implants, biochip transponders on farm animals, manufacturing and distribution systems, automobiles with built-in sensors, or field operation devices that assist firefighters in search and rescue. These devices collect useful data with the help of various existing technologies and then autonomously flow the data between other devices. Current market examples include smart thermostat systems and washer/dryers that utilize Wi-Fi for remote monitoring via a smartphone.
Besides the plethora of new application areas for Internet connected automation to expand into, IoT is also expected to generate large amounts of data from diverse locations that is aggregated very quickly, thereby increasing the need to better index, store and process such data.
That is the promise.
Here Are the Risks
Security Concerns have been raised that the IoT is being developed rapidly without appropriate consideration of the profound security challenges involved and the regulatory changes that might be necessary. According to the BI (Business Insider) Intelligence Survey conducted in the last quarter of 2014, 39% of the respondents said that security is the biggest concern in adopting IoT technology.
In particular, as the IoT spreads widely, cyber attacks are likely to become an increasingly physical (rather than simply virtual) threat. In a January 2014 article in Forbes, cybersecurity columnist Joseph Steinberg listed many Internet-connected appliances that can already “spy on people in their own homes” including televisions, kitchen appliances, cameras and thermostats.
Internet connected computer-controlled devices in manufacturing, processing and distribution systems are also vulnerable to attackers. They can create havoc in tightly connected supply chains by breaking the links within the enterprise, as well as distribution and customer systems. While lost productivity is a byproduct of these attacks, they also can result by increasing personal safety risks and reducing environmental stability.
Remember the widespread power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada on August, 2003? It affected an estimated 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight U.S. states – for days. The blackout’s primary cause was a software bug in the alarm system in a control room of the FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio. The lack of this alarm left operators unaware of the need to re-distribute power after overloaded transmission lines which triggered a race condition in the control software. What would have been a manageable local blackout cascaded into widespread distress on the electric grid. Replace “software bug” in this narrative with “cyber attack” you can see the importance of ItoT security.
Privacy, Autonomy and Control Justin Brookman, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, expressed concern regarding the impact of IoT on consumer privacy, saying that “There are some people in the commercial space who say, ‘Oh, big data — well, let’s collect everything, keep it around forever, we’ll pay for somebody to think about security later.’ The question is whether we want to have some sort of policy framework in place to limit that.”
Editorials at WIRED have also expressed concern, one stating, “What you’re about to lose is your privacy. Actually, it’s worse than that. You aren’t just going to lose your privacy, you’re going to have to watch the very concept of privacy be rewritten under your nose.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed concern regarding the ability of IoT to erode people’s control over their own lives. The ACLU wrote that “There’s simply no way to forecast how these immense powers — disproportionately accumulating in the hands of corporations seeking financial advantage and governments craving ever more control — will be used. Chances are Big Data and the Internet of Things will make it harder for us to control our own lives, as we grow increasingly transparent to powerful corporations and government institutions that are becoming more opaque to us.”
Researchers have identified privacy challenges faced by all stakeholders in IoT domain, from the manufacturers and app developers to the consumers themselves, and examined the responsibility of each party in order to ensure user privacy at all times. Problems highlighted by the report include:
- User consent – somehow, the report says, users need to be able to give informed consent to data collection. Users, however, have limited time and technical knowledge.
- Freedom of choice – both privacy protections and underlying standards should promote freedom of choice. For example, the study notes, users need a free choice of vendors in their smart homes; and they need the ability to revoke or revise their privacy choices.
- Anonymity – IoT platforms pay scant attention to user anonymity when transmitting data, the researchers note. Future platforms could, for example, use TOR or similar technologies so that users can’t be too deeply profiled based on the behaviors of their “things”.
Environmental Impact A concern regarding IoT technologies pertains to the environmental impacts of the manufacture, use, and eventual disposal of all these semiconductor-rich devices. Modern electronics are replete with a wide variety of heavy metals and rare-earth metals, as well as highly toxic synthetic chemicals. This makes them extremely difficult to properly recycle.
Electronic components are often simply incinerated or dumped in regular landfills, thereby polluting soil, groundwater, surface water, and air. Such contamination also translates into chronic human-health concerns.
Furthermore, the environmental cost of mining the rare-earth metals that are integral to modern electronic components continues to grow. With production of electronic equipment growing globally yet little of the metals (from end-of-life equipment) being recovered for reuse, the environmental impacts can be expected to increase.
Also, because the concept of IoT entails adding electronics to mundane devices (for example, simple light switches), and because the major driver for replacement of electronic components is often technological obsolescence rather than actual failure to function, it is reasonable to expect that items that previously were kept in service for many decades would see an accelerated replacement cycle, if they were part of the IoT.
For example, a traditional house built with 30 light switches and 30 electrical outlets might stand for 50 years, with all those components still being original at the end of that period. But a modern house built with the same number of switches and outlets set up for IoT might see each switch and outlet replaced at five-year intervals, in order to keep up-to-date with technological changes. This translates into a ten-fold increase in waste requiring disposal.
ItoT is shaping our physical and virtual world with innovations to make life richer. Along this fast road we are all on, there are many issues to deal with including security, privacy and environmental impacts.