The Internet of Things (IoT) is enabling us to connect everything to the Internet, from light bulbs to tooth brushes, alarm systems and garage doors, and more. With that connection comes concern about privacy, hackers, and unauthorized use of personal data. But most people don’t care, at least not enough to read all the appropriate terms of service agreements to see what kind of personal data they’re giving up. We are still in the early stages of the digital revolution and there won’t be any going back. However, we’ll face some challenges along the way to a utopian world where all of our data will be safe and secure on the network. As French Philosopher Paul Virilio once said, “Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as the technical progress.” The nature of connectivity comes with intrinsic vulnerabilities. Everything that’s connected is vulnerable to cyberattacks and privacy violations.
There is no uniform definition for the IoT. The Institute of Electrical Engineering and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) uses the most nuanced definition: a self-configuring and adaptive system consisting of networks of sensors and smart objects whose purpose is to interconnect all things, including everyday industrial objects, in such a way as to make them intelligent, programmable and more capable of interacting with humans. But regardless of the preferred definition we can be assured of three things; it consists of physical devices; the physical devices are connected to a network; and the devices are “smart.” During the early 80s, there were multiple people assigned to a one computer. They performed tasks such as word processing and spreadsheet functions. Computers were there, but still rare. We were in a transition period when computers and typewriters lived side-by-side and most office functions were still completed manually. Computer time was divided between several users within an office and those lucky users were trained by the people from the companies that provided the software, or the few IT people that worked directly for the company using the computer. Later, when computers became more prevalent, both in the workplace and for private users, the physical CPU in each computer was still the only gateway to the internet and the main connection to other networked computers.
Now, the IoT allows us to be connected via several devices in our home — sprinkler systems, thermostats, security systems, air conditioners, washers and dryers, televisions, refrigerators, light bulbs, shirts, and even cooking appliances, just to name a few. The ratio of devices-to-users has gone from several users for one computer to one person for several computers, with new devices replacing the single multi-function computers with several single function microprocessors. The home thermostat, for example, can speak to several items in the home to determine whether someone is there or not, which insures the alarms are on, which is connected to surveillance camera, whose sensors monitor the dog dog, and so on. From a privacy protection standpoint, instead of protecting against one vulnerability, now there are hundreds of potential vulnerabilities to mitigate. The danger of the IoT is that it produces a large amounts of personal data and used for advertising, like a washing machine application that sends advertising for detergent when it knows you’re about to run out. There’s a possibility that this data collection can be used for social engineering, or just another avenue for hackers to steal personal information. But do people really care?
In the summer of 2016, Pew Research conducted a poll of consisting of technologist, scholars, practitioners, and strategic thinkers. The poll asked respondents “… is it likely that attacks, hacks or ransomware concerns in the next decade will cause significant numbers of people to decide to disconnect, or will the trend toward greater connectivity of objects and people continue unabated?” Only 15 percent of respondents said large numbers would disconnect while the other 85 percent believe people would move more deeply into connected life. People want the convenience of connectivity above all else.
When I hike, I turn on my hiking application. In order for that application to work, I have to turn on my GPS. The GPS does a bunch of other things I did not (directly) sign up for, so when I walk into a restaurant I get a message asking if I want to rate that restaurant or take a picture of it. If I park my car in front of a store for more than a few minutes, such as a sports store, I get advertisements about the goods that store sells they think I may be interested in. And when I walk into a Brans and Noble Book store I get notices about which books I may like based on the books I’ve ordered on Amazon (and quite accurately, too), as if the two competitors are somehow speaking with each other. I understand perfectly what is going on. I could turn off the GPS feature that is tracking me if I wanted to, but it’s convenient for me. Like most people, I’m concerned about the protection of my privacy and the handling of my data, but most of us accept the risk in favor of convenience.
As an anonymous respondent to the Pew poll stated, “The stickiness and value of a connected life will be far too strong for a significant number of people to have the will or means to disconnect.” I agree.
Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at email@example.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.