The Future Is The Internet of Things — Deal With It

The Invisible Hand


IoT is about to explode, perhaps literally, if privacy and security issues aren’t fixed. This article was originally published on arstechnica


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Even before there was a World Wide Web, there was an Internet of Things.

In 1991, a couple of researchers at the University of Cambridge Computer Lab set out to solve the problem of making fruitless quests through the building to a shared coffee pot in the Lab’s Trojan Room. Using a video camera, a frame grabbing card, and a Motorola 68000 series-based computer running VME, they created a networked sensor that could show the current state of the pot. First configured as an X-Windows application, the Trojan Coffee Pot server was converted to HTTP in 1993, becoming one of the early stars of the Internet. It was soon joined by other networked sensors, including a number of hot tubs.

Today, millions of devices expose what they see, hear, and otherwise sense to the Internet. And thanks to cheap embedded systems, they don’t need an old VME or Windows box to do it. Billions of other devices that defy the usual definition of “computer” are communicating over networks, almost entirely with other machines. These “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices send telemetry to and receive instructions from software both nearby and on far-flung servers. Software and sensors are controlling more of what once was done by humans, often more efficiently, conveniently, and cheaply.

This practice is changing how we interact with the physical world. We talk to our televisions and they listen, thanks to embedded sensors and voice processing chips that can tap into the cloud for corrections. We drive down the road and sensors gather data from our cell phones to measure the flow of traffic. Our cars have mobile apps to unlock them. Health devices send data back to doctors, and wristwatches let us send our pulse to someone else. The digital has become physical.

It has been only eight years since the smartphone emerged, introducing the new age of always-on mobile connectivity, and networked devices now already outnumber the people on the planet. By some estimates, within the next five years, the number of devices connected to the Internet will outnumber the people on the planet by over seven to one—50 billion machines, ranging from networked sensors to industrial robots.

Inexpensive computing power, cheap or free connectivity, and the relative ease with which new software and chips are making connecting will make it possible for governments, companies, and even individuals to collect detailed data from IoT devices and automate them in some way. It will be the things’ Internet; we’ll just be living in it.

But given the state of IoT today, that might be a bumpy tenancy if certain issues aren’t ironed out now. Security, privacy, and reliability concerns are the main barriers to a sudden arrival of some singularity where we all live as happy cogs in an IoT machine world. So how will the human social order take to a world of persistent networked everything?

An airplane being assembled at an Airbus facility. The company is developing “smart tools” that use local and network intelligence as part of its “factory of the future” initiative.

The promise of IoT is “smart” everything. Nest’s Internet-connected Learning thermostat, Nest Cam surveillance camera, and Protect networked smoke alarm promise a more energy-efficient, safer home. IoT technology is a key part of the pitch for “smart cities,” “smart buildings,” “smart factories,” and just about every other “smart” proposal from sensor manufacturers, networking companies, and big technology consultancies. Seemingly everyone is looking for a piece of the biggest potential collection of integration projects ever. Sometimes the “smart” is relatively close to the sensor itself, but it often relies on a remote cloud service or data center to process the information and control actions.
On the consumer side, while devices like Nest’s get much of the attention, wearable IoT devices are just starting to take off—despite the relatively low impact so far of high-profile efforts like the Apple Watch. “The Apple Watch may be on a slower liftoff cycle than other recent Apple hardware launches, but it has a complex number of use cases which are finding their home, purpose, and meaning,” said Mark Curtis, the chief client officer at Fjord, Accenture’s design consultancy. Within the next two to three years, he predicted, wrist-based devices will lose the need to be tethered to a smartphone. “At the same time, interactions between wearables and nearables (e.g., beacons, Amazon Echo, connected cars) will grow.”

The health field is the most immediate fit for wearables, because they can gather data that has a benefit without conscious human action. “A good example is our Fjord Fido diabetes platform,” Curtis said. “It requires complex linking between devices and data but would not have been possible without a smartwatch.”

Governments are especially interested in the analytical powers of IoT-collected data for all sorts of reasons, from tuning services at the most basic levels to understanding how to respond in an emergency—as well as collecting revenue. Traffic lights and even pedestrian crossing buttons could be used as networked sensors, said Michael Daly, chief technology officer for Raytheon Cybersecurity and Special Missions. “You could see how many times is this being used and how long people are waiting to cross, then adjust traffic flow accordingly,” he said.

Industry is equally interested in the data that can be tapped into by IoT, and more companies are examining the benefits of using the embedded intelligence and network connectivity of IoT devices to improve their own systems and products. In most of these applications, National Instruments Executive Vice President Eric Starkloff told Ars, companies are most interested in instrumenting their operations, “looking for events that are a warning of impending failure” in systems or squeezing additional efficiency out of their operations. So far, only a small fraction of industrial systems have network-based telemetry gathering, and Starkloff said that the greatest opportunities for growth over the next five years are in “brown field” applications. These are instances of simply upgrading or enhancing existing hardware in factories, refineries, office buildings and other physical plants with IoT goodness.

Manufacturing companies have been among the earliest adopters of IoT. General Electric has pushed forward its own massive internal investment in IoT technology to collect analytic data from everything from gas turbine engines to locomotives. IoT is also part of the “factory of the future” concept embraced by aircraft manufacturer Airbus, where National Instruments is helping the company put “smart IoT technologies into their smart tooling and robotics systems that work alongside human operators,” according to Starkloff.

Airbus’ IoT interest is as much about ensuring the precision of the company’s manufacturing as it is about sensing potential problems. “Today they put planes together mostly manually,” Starkloff said. “They want to move to the point where tools are intelligent—where a tool knows whether a rivet was put in correctly.” To do that, the analytics tracking system performance “has to be close, not up in cloud,” he explained. “They need devices communicating locally—smart tooling connected to smart wearables, such as glasses with a heads-up display.”

In a way, Airbus’ vision mirrors one that Boeing attempted in the 1990s with augmented reality (one the company has continued to invest in ever since). It’s also similar to some of the methods of tying IoT technology to augmented reality visualization we saw at GE Software earlier this year, where technicians could be directed to equipment needing service in a manufacturing environment and stepped through the process with visual cues. But Airbus’ setup also includes using IoT technology to communicate between human operated tools and robotic systems, passing data over a local network to allow machines and humans to work collaboratively.

The Department of Defense has similar designs on IoT, though the systems that the DOD wants to enhance are often soldiers themselves. Embedded and wearable systems are turning soldiers into nodes on the DOD network, both to enhance their battlefield performance and to track their well-being. Aside from the work on autonomous drones and other sensors, the Army has developed networked helmet sensors that can help detect the severity of concussive blows (a bit of tech that the NFL has moved to adopt as well). The military, through a number of DARPA projects and other labs, continues to develop wearable technologies that will allow soldiers to interact with other systems.

At a recent conference sponsored by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), scientists discussed the possibility of “implanted” sensors that could communicate what a soldier was doing without the soldier having to consciously communicate it. Thomas F. Greco, director of intelligence at TRADOC, said that IoT technology coupled with wearable sensors could result in a “precision of knowing,” reducing ambiguity on the battlefield and allowing commanders to have absolute knowledge of what troops were doing. But he also said that having that kind of data could affect the order and discipline of soldiers. “Ambiguity is a kind of lubricant in personal relationships,” he said, wondering how that would change “when you have total knowledge and accountability.”

The whole world is (literally) watching

That is similar to the questions many privacy advocates are asking about IoT. At a Federal Trade Commission workshop on IoT technology in 2013, participants raised concerns about the impact of “direct collection of sensitive personal information..”.

…such as precise geolocation, financial account numbers, or health information…Others arise from the collection of personal information, habits, locations, and physical conditions over time, which may allow an entity that has not directly collected sensitive information to infer it. The sheer volume of data that even a small number of devices can generate is stunning: one participant indicated that fewer than 10,000 households using the company’s IoT home automation product can “generate 150 million discrete data points a day” or approximately one data point every six seconds for each household.

Privacy becomes an even bigger issue with wearable devices. As Fjord’s Curtis noted, “Wearables are worn publicly to express our sense of fashion and style, but at the same time, they can display extremely personal data. With these new devices, we may find ourselves ‘wearing’ some of the most personal aspects of ourselves: our conversations, relationships, and even our health. Unlike our smartphones, which we can conceal in the privacy of our pockets, wearables may ironically be the most intimate and public devices yet. When designing for this paradox, it’s important to keep in mind this precarious tipping point between public and personal.”

The Fjord Fido diabetes tracking application, linked through an Apple Watch, is an example of one of the ways that wearable IoT devices can help millions.

Some of those issues can be addressed through design. Curtis identified Apple as doing a good job of protecting privacy in two design choices: by using the pulse sensor to detect when the watch has been taken off (and requiring a passcode to unlock it) and by having the display turn off when the watch is facing away from the owner.

“All of these devices, they’re not just independent widgets,” said Raytheon’s Daly. “They’re all collecting lots and lots of data on what we’re doing.” Even if the data is on something seemingly benign, like data from a fitness and health monitoring device, there’s potential for its misuse. The same data that measures how many steps you’ve taken each day and how far you’ve gone could be used to track your activity for divining knowledge about “who you are, where you go, and how you move,” Daly noted.
In some cases, that could be a good thing: data from a health tracker could, for example, theoretically let responders to an earthquake know that someone is alive and moving under a collapsed building. But collected over time, the data poses a significant privacy risk. “Personal informa­tion could leak, which may not be a concern if it’s just the number of steps walked but could be embarrass­ing or compromising if it’s personal medical data,” Curtis said. And third parties could inadvertently expose that kind of data if there aren’t proper controls. “Many people will have no issue with their health data being shared with a doctor,” Curtis explained. “But the same people may hesitate before sharing data with an insurance company.”

Daly added that the vast amount of data transmitted by IoT devices and stored locally raises the question of how long data collected from their users “should be allowed to live in the world, and how you get rid of it” when that appropriate life is over.

Part of the problem could be addressed by reducing what gets collected in the first place. While not all IoT devices can be equipped like the ones Airbus is installing in its factory, the systems that collect the data could perform pre-processing to gather only the analytically valuable data for storage.

Speed the plow

Reducing the data flow might not seem like a major issue for the industrial flavor of IoT since it doesn’t touch the broader Internet much. It’s more an “Internet of things” in lower case, connecting factory local networks and other industrial systems together over private wide-area networks. That’s in part because of security and in part because of the reliability requirements for industrial applications.

“The bar for [Internet] reliability is going to have to go up for industrial IoT,” said Kris Alexander, chief strategist at Akamai. “It just has to work. I’m going to have four hours of downtime a year? That won’t cut it.” But if companies are going to start including IoT technology in products at any scale, the Internet will have to play a role in order for it to be affordable.

This need for low latency and high speed within the industrial IoT space is driving the adoption of new networking standards. These systems, based existing Ethernet and IP-based networking technology, may soon find their way far beyond the factory floor. Time Sensitive Networking (TSN), a time synchronized networking standard overseen by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the AVnu Alliance, can easily accommodate many IoT applications as we saw in lab tests at GE. In addition to IoT applications in industry, TSN is being looked at for use in automobiles. “There’s a strong desire for TSN to be used in the automotive space because companies want to use IP-based controls for automobiles,” said Starkloff.

But even in the somewhat friendly confines of the “industrial Internet,” bandwidth isn’t free. Collecting telemetry data from IoT devices for deep analytics at any sort of scale requires doing a lot of processing at the edge to cut down information to a more manageable and usable form, according to Starkloff. When that telemetry is coming from millions of consumer-grade devices over the Internet, the need to cut down on what is collected becomes just as much about maintaining reliability as protecting privacy.

One route might be a sort of reverse content delivery network, where a provider performs a forward-positioned processing of data with a MapReduce function or other big data processing scheme before passing the data back to the analytics system behind the IoT application. That’s something Akamai already does internally, and the company is examining how to turn it into a service for IoT applications. “Today we have REST APIs, which we use to retrieve data for business units,” said Alexander. The distributed data collection network at Akamai currently collects 1.2 exabytes of data per year. “We’re exploring ways we could have third parties use the system to pull in data,” he said.

If data is only being collected for a few thousand devices, Alexander explained, “you’d probably be better off with your own service and Amazon Web Services,” but a service like the one Akamai currently uses internally could support data feeds from hundreds of thousands devices. “We’re already talking to automotive companies interested in using our network to collect data,” he noted.

A slew of recently revealed exploits shows gaps in carmakers’ security fit and finish.
The same goes the other way: how do you get software updates out to millions of embedded devices on the Internet? Akamai has already done this in the automobile industry, distributing software updates to 40 million vehicles last year, according to Alexander.

There are other emerging technologies that could make IoT connections more reliable, especially for mobile devices. The coming 5G cellular broadband standard is seeking to reduce latency across mobile networks to below a millisecond. The ultimate IoT devices, autonomous vehicles, absolutely need low-latency, reliable data networks in order to operate reliably.

No matter what G the wireless broadband network that connects IoT devices is, it’s still an IP-based network. And as security researchers demonstrated when they were able to use Sprint’s wireless network to gain access to a Jeep Cherokee’s “connected car” systems and then its control network, being on mobile networks doesn’t erase the biggest fear concerning IoT: security. It may be the most persistent problem that IoT faces because of the potential effect that an attack on IoT systems could have in the physical world.

The wireless attack surfaces of a typical late-model “IoT” car. Your hackage may vary.


To get an idea of how exposed IoT systems are to attack, all you need to do is perform a quick search on the Shodan search engine. A bit of poking around will reveal scores of security cameras, baby monitors, and other webcams (some configured with the flimsiest of security, some with none at all). You can also find control interfaces for medical devices, HVAC systems, city traffic management systems, and lots and lots of vulnerable home broadband routers. Just because they’re visible on the naked Internet doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re easily hackable, but it does mean that once one device of a certain type is breached, attackers can quickly find others.

These devices do more than just talk to the Web. In some cases, Internet-connected embedded devices interact with other things in a way that can affect the physical world: spinning centrifuges a bit faster, unlocking and locking doors, turning up the heat, turning off brakes. Making devices visible to the Internet doesn’t necessarily make them hackable in and of itself, but it certainly exposes any possible security gaps to a much larger audience of people willing to give it a shot. And some of these devices may already have well-known exploits that will give an attacker entry. That’s because unlike most devices humans use, patching them is extremely complicated.
“On the one end of the spectrum, you have very low-end devices that don’t really allow the vendor to provide long-term support for them,” explained Raytheon’s Daly. “If I sell a garage door opener and it connects to the Internet, it’s highly unlikely I’m going to get firmware upgrades. There’s no incentive to the manufacturer to provide me free things forever. The same is true with some smart wrist watches and [consumer] health monitors. So if you want to get patched properly, you’re probably going to have to buy the next version. That means we’re going to have lots of things floating around connected, even forgotten in your house, that can contribute to wider criminal activity.”

For example, Daly said, some consumer appliances could be breached not to steal information about their owners. Instead, would-be hackers would use the devices in spam campaigns or distributed denial of service attacks—something that has already happened with home routers.

At the other end of the spectrum in the industrial sector, however, patching might happen even less frequently. Industrial companies “have a different way of dealing with obsolescence management,” said National Instrument’s Starkloff. “One of the biggest differences from consumer IT is the upgrade cycle. We have one customer monitoring HVAC systems chilling a data center, and these industrial chillers last a long time—some are 80 years old. But the technology for monitoring has a much faster upgrade cycle. How do you build an architecture for things like that that’s enabled for upgradability? These industries aren’t used to that. They might have a maintenance schedule but not an upgrade schedule.”

In addition, Daly said some of these systems are “tied to things that just can’t be disrupted. There’s no such thing as ‘let’s throw up a patch and see if the power grid stays up.’ You can’t just patch them every Tuesday of the month.”

Back to the future

It’s already been demonstrated that these sorts of industrial IoT systems can pose a financial threat to companies and consumers: the Target data breach was made possible by targeting the remote control virtual private network connections used by a heating and cooling provider to monitor and control HVAC systems at Target’s stores. But the “cyberphysical” impact of attacks on IoT systems tied to traffic management and other mundane government and company services could be much more expensive.

“How much disruption could you cause society by messing with traffic lights?” asked Daly. “If we’re in the middle of an emergency, suddenly the traffic is all backed up and the water trucks can’t deliver into the neighborhoods… you could imagine supply chain disruption on a massive scale if these systems are not well architected.”

Considering these are problems that are still being addressed in the personal computing world more than 20 years after the birth of the Web, it’s unlikely they’ll all be solved any time soon. But the future of IoT technology depends on how well device developers and service providers respond to those challenges.

The IoT future could also be shaped by how governments respond to popular concerns about their privacy. The recent response to security research on connected automobiles and the mixed reception that autonomous unmanned aircraft are getting are just the beginning. Throw in concerns about cloud computing and the upturning of “Safe Harbor” data agreements by the European Union’s courts, and the roadmap for the IoT devices gets even more complicated.

But there is reason to believe that despite the obstacles, IoT devices will unleash a new wave of Internet-based services,in ways we can’t foresee—much like the way the smartphone came along and changed the world of computing. Fjord’s Curtis said that while wearable devices, for instance, “may not achieve quite the same trajectory and pace” of the smartphone’s growth, he believes they’ll be widely adopted in the next five years. “In all likelihood,” he said, “developing markets like India will invent new and unforeseen uses for wearables that leapfrog smartphone functionality and usage habits in more mature markets in the same way as payment technology in Africa on the phone bypassed the desktop Web.”

This article is shared as part of our “The Invisible Hand: Hidden Forces of Technology” series. In 2016, Social Media Week’s global theme will explore the intangible, under-valued processes driving our technology, and ultimately, our decisions, forward. As we become more efficient, dynamic, and diverse human-beings, we have the responsibility to understand the present and future potential of these hidden forces all around us.

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