Internet of Things: Great Innovation or Big Fat Mistake?

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The Internet of Things will change everyone’s life, no doubt there. The question is will it be a positive change or one that we all regret?

Later in life, Albert Einstein regretted adding his signature to the letter sent to President Roosevelt urging him to support nuclear chain-reaction research. However, Einstein’s hindsight is of no help. To use a cliché, "The genie was already out of the bottle." It has been suggested we are at a similar precipice with the Internet of Things.

OK … maybe it won't change the course of history quite as dramatically as nuclear weapons, but it definitely has the power to change the world. The only question is, will it change things for the better?

"Things"? What Things?

Describing the Internet of Things is a challenge. There are countless definitions, each one subject to the author’s biases. A definition gaining acceptance among experts is the one championed by Ovidiu Vermesan and Peter Friess in their book "Internet of Things – Global Technological and Societal Trends":

  • "The Internet of Things could be conceptually defined as a dynamic global network infrastructure with self-configuring capabilities based on standard and interoperable communication protocols where physical and virtual "things" have identities, physical attributes, and virtual personalities. These same things use intelligent interfaces and are seamlessly integrated into the information network."

The above definition refers to physical and virtual "things." Some of their capabilities include:

  • Sensors: To track and measure activity in the world.
  • Connectivity: A connection to the Internet might be included in the item itself, or that item might be connected to a hub, smartphone or base station.
  • Processors: IoT devices will have some of their own computing power, if only to crunch incoming data and transmit it.

The Internet of Things as a concept got its start when security cameras began populating light posts and other vantage points in cities around the world. Author David Brin, in his 1998 book "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?," explored what this phenomenon potentially meant to society by creating an imaginary scenario for two cities. In one city, only the police had access to the metro’s surveillance-camera feeds. In the other city, every citizen had equal access to the public surveillance-camera feeds. Brin then hypothesized what that meant to the citizens in each city.

An Invisible, Pervasive Medium

Fast-forward a decade, and the Internet of Things is once more vaulted into the media limelight with the commercialization of RFID technology. This captured the attention of critical thinkers, including Rob van Kranenburg. In his book, "The Internet of Things. A critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID," Kranenburg explained RFID technology as another member of the Internet of Things.


Something else Kranenburg explored in his book was the physical and virtual invisibility afforded devices belonging to the Internet of Things, a concept first promoted by Mark Weiser and his research into ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp. According to Kranenburg, "Computing, information processing and computers disappear into the background, and take on a role similar to that of electricity today – an invisible, pervasive medium distributed throughout the world."

Being ubiquitous may seem like a good thing, and it is – with one caveat: Unlike electricity, the Internet of Things cannot be shut off. That’s why it is so important that the world’s citizens decide how the Internet of Things will work, and not let those with their own agendas decide for everyone. Remember what Kranenburg and Weiser contend: the Internet of Things will "fold into the fabric of everyday life."

A Tale of Two Very Different Cities

Trying to make sense of the Internet of Things is a complex task. Sean Dodson made a valiant attempt in the forward – A Tale of Two Cities – that he wrote for Kranenburg’s book. Dodson took David Brin’s "two cities using security cameras" example and examined what it would look like with the Internet of Things in place.

Dodson gave names to the cities: the "City of Control" to the city where only the police had access to surveillance footage, and "City of Trust" to the city where everyone had access to surveillance footage. First, the City of Control.

City of Control

To Dodson, the City of Control has its roots in George Orwell’s "1984." In this world, everything is tagged with RFID, even people, allowing every purchase or movement citizens make to be tracked, recorded and safely tucked away in a database that can be mined at any time to ferret out abnormal (illegal) activity. In the City of Control, Dodson theorizes, security cameras will become irrelevant, and RFID readers feeding satellite systems will track every move made by citizens. Yikes. So what other option is there? Next stop, the City of Trust.

City of Trust

Dodson’s City of Trust has all the same technology, but there's one very big difference: Everyone controls that technology, from citizens to police. For example, implanting an RFID chip is up to the citizen. This openness offers many interesting possibilities. Some examples:

  • A lost notebook is easily found and returned to the person who lost it.
  • Cameras in the police station allow citizens to watch what the police are watching.

The big contrasts Dodson makes between the two cities are transparency and the citizens' ability to opt out. From what Kranenburg and Weiser said about ubicomp, it would be interesting to learn how citizens from one of Dodson’s cities reacted when they visited the other.

What Should the IoT Look Like?

According to marketers the future looks bright for humankind. The Internet of Things will solve all our problems. What kinds of problems you may ask? Well, communication in the kitchen for one. That's according to the capabilities proposed by Samsung's smart refrigerator.

screen from a Samsung smart refrigerator showing weather and apps

"Leave notes for your loved ones. Display photos from your Picasa library, mobile phone or SD card. Stay up to date with all your family activities with Google Calendar. Access hundreds of recipes from Epicurious. Plus, get the latest weather and news via Weather Bug and Associated Press."

OK. That could be fun. And it won't be long before an appliance like this is scanning your bar codes and telling you when that yogurt is past its due date. But is this really groundbreaking technology?

Or what about Phonebloks, a modular smartphone and the creation of Dave Hakkens. Consisting of a main attachment board and individual third-party bloks, the entire phone can be customized to fit individual needs. What’s interesting is that Phonebloks in of itself could be considered a "mini" Internet of Things that attaches to the global Internet of Things. With Phonebloks, the problem Hakkens intends to solve is reducing electronic waste by eliminating planned obsolescence.

Phonebloks modular phone

There are, of course, more critical applications for this technology. Another problem solver that qualifies as an Internet of Things device is the wireless heart monitor. It connects via secured Wi-Fi channels to the command and control device (usually at the nurse's station), ensuring that patients can be monitored at all times regardless of their activities.

According to the manufacturer, this monitor is "a breakthrough in patient monitoring, Dräger Infinity M300 provides the performance of a full-size patient monitor, packaged in a patient-worn telemetry device for adult and pediatric patients."

Dräger Infinity M300 heart monitor

Granted, going from smart refrigerators to wireless heart monitors is rather dramatic, but it does show the depth that is possible with Internet of Things devices.

Now, it might be beneficial to broaden the scope, and look at how the Internet of Things might serve society as a whole.

Lorna Goulden, Director of Creative Innovation Works and founding member of the Council of the Internet of Things has written and spoken extensively about the Internet of Things and how it will affect society.

"One of the positively disruptive aspects of the Internet of Things," Goulden said, "is what I call the 'democratization' of the invisible world," Goulden said.

"The true value of the Internet of Things does not lie with enabling things, but in shifting emphasis toward design innovation, along with greater integration of human culture, creativity and intelligence into what we consider the Internet of Things."

Goulden gives the example of how Japanese citizens living near Fukushima took it upon themselves to measure radiation levels following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, rather than waiting for the government to do so. Instead, these citizens sent their findings to websites like Safecast, where the data was organized and posted for public viewing.

Safecast website showing radiation levels around Fukushima

Source: Safecast

Another interesting example cited by Goulden is "global-scale collaboration" initiatives like the Planetary Skin Institute, in which NASA and Cisco have teamed up to develop a global "nervous system" to integrate land, sea, air and space-based sensors to help both public and private organizations make decisions about climate change.

IoT and the Law

One may not expect attorneys to benefit from the Internet of Things professionally, but it appears they will. Tyler Pitchford, an appellate attorney and former software developer, understands both Information Technology and the law, giving him a distinct advantage in understanding how the Internet of Things will help him do his job.

Pitchford feels the Internet of Things will be a definite help during court cases, especially the ability to demonstrate evidence while maintaining the evidence’s chain of custody. Pitchford adds, "From the standpoint of assisting clients: having all of their paperwork, evidence, and in cases involving digital dispute, their networks, cataloged will reduce costs significantly."

Pitchford also mentioned a benefit that digs right into exactly what many people are concerned about when it comes to IoT: privacy and security. "If I understand correctly," Pitchford said, "the Internet of Things will allow the courts to track jurors and attorneys even if everyone is dismissed for a break."

IoT and Security

As with any new technology, especially pervasive Internet-related ones, there are security and privacy concerns. Jacob Williams, Chief Digital Forensic Scientist at CSRgroup, is well positioned to comment on these concerns.

Williams starts out by mentioning that while securing a smart refrigerator may not be as important as securing the family computer, attackers will always exploit the weakest link. If that smart refrigerator is connected to the Internet, attackers could gain access to Picasa albums and other shared items. If it has email access, that account is at risk too. But it gets more serious than having your family photos and recipes hacked.

"Countless people rely on medical devices, from portable defibrillators to insulin pumps, many of which are network enabled." Williams said. "When these devices are connected to the Internet and under the right conditions, it is possible for attackers to eavesdrop on the data being sent by the devices."

Williams also said it was entirely possible for malicious parties to change settings on devices, causing great harm to their users. Williams offered the example of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and his request to disable Wi-Fi access to his pacemaker. Now there's a frequency you wouldn't want a hacker to tap into.

Now What?

The potential good of the Internet of Things is mind-boggling. The potential for mistakes is right up there as well. For example, consider the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) decision to reclassify broadband Internet access from a telecommunications service to an information service. That simple change eliminated net neutrality and conceivably altered how traffic flows on the Internet forever. That's not what the FCC intended, but that is what happened. Fast-forward to when everything requires Internet access. Now what?


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Michael Kassner

Michael Kassner is a veteran reporter of technology, wordsmith, and founder of MKassner Net (LLC).