The Internet of Things offers huge promise but also potential challenges. iStock / Claudio Divizia

The Promise and Perils of the IoT

The IoT could help transform society and kickstart the next industrial revolution. But industrial revolutions can have shadow sides—just ask Karl Marx.

In many ways, the world needs the Internet of Things. True, the IoT is trendy, and some applications of the technology are frivolous. But the IoT can also help address some of society’s most pressing problems. “Just like the industrial revolution changed the world forever, and the information revolution changed the world forever, I think this next turn of the crank, has the potential to change life on earth significantly,” says Infobright president and CEO Don DeLoach.

The first Industrial Revolution also illustrates how a broad technological trend can have markedly positive and negative sides. While the advent of steam power dramatically improved productivity, reduce the cost of goods, and led to greater prosperity for many, it also led to widespread pollution and brutal working conditions for some laborers.

For the technological revolutions that followed the first industrial revolution, the good and bad they created were after more closely intermingled and occasionally difficult to differentiate. Yet how organizations choose to implement IoT technologies could have ramifications for decades to come.

The Potential

On the bright side, Internet of Things technology can potentially help tackle some of the world’s greatest problems including overpopulation, climate change, and poverty. The IoT also can make healthcare more efficient. It can help control crime. And can even help feed the world’s population, which is on track to hit 9 billion by 2040, according to some projections. “When you think about the agricultural yield that we will need to sustain population 25 years from now and beyond, the productivity per acre of land almost has to double. The only way that is going to happen is by introducing better ways of growing food, and the IoT can play a significant role in that,” DeLoach says. “The opportunity is immense whether it is in agriculture or city service or governmental services or telehealth or manufacturing.”

“When the iPhone came out, most people didn't think that there would be 500,000 different applications that you could run on it. I don’t think most people are thinking of the Internet of Things as a giant platform from which thousands of yet-to-be-contemplated applications will evolve. But it will,” DeLoach says.

Examples of promising IoT technologies include gunshot detection systems that can immediately determine where a shot came from and instantly notify police. If a city with such a system also has cameras posted on nearby street lights, they could be programmed to automatically turn towards the location of the gunshot. Speaking of street lights, they could be piggybacked with sensors to monitor everything from traffic, to air quality, to parking. Connected cars could pinpoint the location of potholes and alert nearby drivers and the city that a repair is needed. In the healthcare realm, IoT technologies could be used to help monitor the elderly in their homes, can help doctors remotely monitor patients, and can empower patients to keep tabs on their daily health.

The Perils

Much has been made of the security problems posed by the Internet of Things. And, already, in these early days of the IoT, there are hundreds of examples of security concerns posed by the technology that pop up when doing a casual Google search.

Still, in the present environment, makers of IoT technologies are rewarded for adding features more than they are chastised for ignoring security vulnerabilities. And for consumers buying IoT technologies, the idea of security is often an afterthought. “People buy new IoT subsystems because they want feature functionality,” DeLoach says. “They don’t want to assume that they are becoming more vulnerable by using this equipment.”

What is perhaps the most worrisome about the cybersecurity of the Internet of Things is its potential to enable criminals to increase the scope of security exploits. “If you can hack the power grid, that is not a good thing,” DeLoach says. “Or if you can hack the transportation network and completely shut down a city, that is not good either.”  

The Internet of Things could greatly expand the number of targets that hackers can go after, ranging from connected cars and homes to factories. 

The more complex a system, the greater the potential for significant problems. And many IoT applications are exceptionally complex—sometimes involving an array of disparate technologies and vendors.  

Even a technology as pervasive as the light bulb can be targeted with grave consequences. “When you turn an LED bulb on and off 200 times per second you can cause it to ignite,” DeLoach notes. “This is just one of many illustrations of IoT security vulnerabilities. Let’s say someone decided to do this to an entire hotel or office building that is equipped with thousands of these bulbs. A hacker gets in and—without a great difficulty—programs the lights to explode and catch on fire.”

While progress has been made on this front, there are still significant security problems. “The key players have become much more cognizant of the importance of security but the problem persists. Recently, a bunch of IoT companies went to Defcon with the certainty that their systems were impenetrable, and virtually every one of them got hacked—most of them fairly easily,” DeLoach says. “It is an example of how immature the market is even though there is a phenomenal amount of attention appropriately being paid to the IoT.”

DeLoach predicts that a high-profile hack could catapult the issue to the public’s attention. “We could see an instance of a power grid or a city getting hacked and people will go into an alarmist mode,” he says. “I do think that the industry is starting to do a better job at addressing IoT vulnerabilities, but that doesn’t mean that I am comfortable.”

Other delicate issues for IoT technologies are the fact that they enable vast amounts of data to be collected. That leads to obvious privacy questions but the topic also ties into the notion of governance. “Who owns the data? How will it be shared? Fundamental issues like those are not worked out very well yet for many IoT applications,” DeLoach says. And companies that are already accustomed to sharing data with customers—whether they be Internet firms, telecoms, or automotive companies—typically only share a sliver of their data with customers.

DeLoach expects the volume of that information to gradually increase. Ultimately, the notion of who owns the data may be influenced by supply and demand. “If the city of Chicago wants to implement smart street lights and it has two potential suppliers—one open to sharing data and the other demanding that they control the data—who do you think the city is going to buy from?” DeLoach asks. “It’s the same thing in the commercial world. Let’s say Bosch is offering their restaurant consumers more access to data. Consumers are going to go to Bosch because they want to leverage that data.”

Lessons from the Evolution of the Internet

While there are many projections for how the Internet of Things will evolve, it may be wise to take many of them with a grain of salt. Roughly two decades after the rise of the Internet, it is apparent how off base many of the projections about the Web from the 1990s were. The Internet was initially envisioned as a completely open, democratic environment where everyone had equal opportunity. Cybersecurity—which is on track to be a $170-billion industry by 2020—wasn’t even a concept then. Meanwhile, email was envisioned as a great productivity booster compared with “snail mail.” While it has become essential for modern business and personal communication, Fortune magazine recently called a “productivity killer.” The majority of email traffic in the world is spam. According to a survey of white collar workers, an average worker spends more than six hours per day checking emails—split roughly evenly between work and personal email.

Despite the early promise of the Internet to create a democratic environment, in many ways the Internet has helped concentrate power in the hands of the few. “The amount of advertising dollars and advertising resources that are being driven across the entirety of the Internet by five companies is astronomical,” DeLoach says. Google’s parent Alphabet itself controls 12% of all global advertising spending, according to Adweek. “If Google or Facebook decides that they want to take a position in terms of how a nation-state is viewed on the world stage, they would have tremendous leverage to do that,” DeLoach adds.

“You could extend that to the Internet of Things. If the vast majority of the IoT falls under the control of a very small number of players, than the power of those players is immense,” he says. “And I think there are reasons for nations to weigh in in terms of the type of constraints on how this technology is regulated.”

You can see how China wants to control the operation of companies like Google and Facebook. India recently turned down Facebook’s offer of free Internet in rural areas for the reason they felt it gave Facebook too much control. “There are positions taken under the auspices of what is best for society at large that govern the use of the Internet. And I think there will be similar actions taken that are taken for the Internet of Things,” DeLoach says. “While this technology can have a massive positive impact on life on earth, that power has to come with responsibility and be constrained for the good of people at large.”

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