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Time to get Real on IoT

Posted by on April 29, 2015.

I was reading my Twitter feed this afternoon and a member of my network posted an article about how the Internet of Things (IoT) will create a virtual world with virtual people and how wonderful this will be for society, ushering in a future where we control everything without ever having to really do anything.  Sounds wonderful, paints a glossy utopian picture where everything is white, our cars drive us and our fridge makes sure we never run out of dairy.

The reality however is that despite all this talk of the wonders of the virtual future – the IoT creates very real risks with equally real consequences and they already exist.  Back in 2011 I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a closed conference in Ispra, Italy run by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) – the topics were focused on identity, security and privacy in emerging technologies and a great deal of the discussion centered around the IoT.  Some of the best academic minds in Europe on security and privacy were present at the conference, it was an honour to be surrounded by such genius but by the end of the week it was clear that we faced serious problems with regards to the security and privacy of IoT.

Back then, most people had never heard of IoT – it was a topic discussed by academics, research centers and giant tech R&D personnel – now, four years on, barely an hour goes by on my social media feeds without some mention of the promise of IoT with automated homes and self driving cars, connected prosthetics, bio-sensors, environmental sensors, evens sensors for monitoring other sensors – it is really out of control.  But the one thing which has not changed since 2011 is the concern over privacy and security.

It seems we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past which begs the question why does the evolution of technology seem so incapable or learning from its mistakes?  When the first atom bomb was developed it was seen as the way to end a war but would it really have been used if we could step into the future and see a glimpse of the consequences – the impact it would have on millions of people spanning multiple generations? I would hope the answer is no.

IoT is already here and is expanding at a phenomenal rate – we have smart tv’s, smart watches, smart wrist bands, smart homes, smart cars, smart phones, smart fridges and countless other smart technologies but the dark irony is none of these technologies are smart in the true sense of the word.  They have no sense of ethics or moral conscience, they have no wisdom or experience, they do not make decisions or choices – they are quite simply following instructions; to call them smart at all is a mockery – yet another marketing sleight of hand to make people feel safe when the reality is these technologies are far from it.

Neither are they “virtual” – all these technologies and devices are real, they have physical circuitry and storage which can be tampered with; they store data on physical servers housed in physical facilities which can be compromised, stolen or hacked.  To use the word virtual to describe the IoT serves one purpose – to make the risks seem less real and -that- is dangerous.

The future of IoT will see people killed by hacked cars, medical devices and home automation systems.  It will see an emergence of digital stalking by people who hack the tiny cameras which are invading every space of our lives.  It will see an increase in surveillance by governments and corporations who feel the need to know about everything we do so they can better control us.  We will see home invasions and burglaries as a result of hackers being able to see when we are or are not at home.  These consequences are all very real and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they will come along with many darker consequences I haven’t mentioned.

I am a technologist – passionate about using technology to empower the people of the world, remove boundaries, share knowledge and who knows – maybe even lead to world peace.  But I am also a sociologist who looks at the impact technology has on the world with a wide angle lens – how it infringes on our rights, how it is used to control instead of empower and the risks which must be managed in order for us to use these tools safely and responsibly.

If we don’t take control and put privacy and security in the foundations of IoT – then the future will be riddled with very real consequences to all that convenience.  Engineers need to start thinking about privacy and security as a priority instead of an afterthought.  It is time we got real on IoT.


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Submitted in: Alexander Hanff, Expert Views, News_privacy, Security | Tags: , , , ,