Don’t fear the Internet of things

By Jack Shafer
January 10, 2014

Novelist Philip K. Dick anticipated by four decades the Internet of Things, a phenomenon touted loudly by the press from this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Internet-aware automobilestoothbrushesmattressesinfant monitorsfitness trackerspet collarstennis racketslightbulbstoiletsbathroom scales“wearable” techtricorder-like medical sensors, and more have arrived or are on their way.

Dick, ever the dystopian, recognized that one man’s technological boon is inevitably another’s bane, and expressed this view most bleakly in his Ubik. The novel, published in 1969 but set in the early 1990s, posits a world populated with nearly sentient appliances. Joe Chip, the novel’s protagonist, is so broke he’s in arrears with the robots that clean his apartment, and they have reported him to a credit agency as a deadbeat. One morning, upon attempting to exit his apartment, the smartdoor blocked him, saying “Five cents, please.”

“I’ll pay you tomorrow,” Chip promised after searching his empty pockets.

The door isn’t having it, and refused to open. “What I pay you,” Chip said, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”

“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed.” Chip did as told, retrieving the contract and reading it.

“You discover I’m right,” said the door in a smug voice.

Using a knife as a screwdriver, Chip started to unscrew the bolt assembly.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.

“I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it,” Chip responded.

Nobody has been sued by a sassy, Ubik-esque smartdoor — yet. But it’s not completely irrational to worry that somewhere in the terms of service agreements that come with the new-age lightbulbs, dog collars, and who-knows-what-next entering the market, we’ll find boilerplate legal language that will give our appliances standing in court to sue us for non-payment, trespassing, and unscrewing. As more and more everyday objects become “aware” and report the position and status of not just things but people, our world might start converging with the one imagined in Dick’s Ubik.

What troubles people about the Internet of Things (or IoT, it’s called) is not the nagging and monitoring the devices generate, but control over the data collected. Computer data is used against you in ways you never anticipated. A piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal gives a current example: Lending companies now scrape Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to establish individuals’ creditworthiness and identity, something few users thought about when posting pictures and narratives about themselves. As IoT devices roll out, they’ll become new self-surveillance devices like our phones and email, creating “records” that if not properly secured will be scraped by Big Business. Business isn’t the only potential heavy in the IoT future. Under the records provision of the Patriot Act, the U.S. government already collects our telephone and email metadata. Surely the Patriot Act could be used to hoover up IoT data, too.

Setting privacy worries aside for security worries, IoT devices will give criminals new ways to hack our identities, defraud us, steal our medical data, and break into our homes and businesses unless made secure. Other horror scenarios abound: “Financial systems, power grids, sewage systems, oil and natural gas pipelines communications” could be compromised, and malware could be inserted on low-level devices to cause mayhem in upstream targets, as Stuxnet did with Iran’s centrifuges. (For more privacy and security fretting, see the transcript from the recent Federal Trade Commission “workshop” on the IoT.)

Of course, the IoT isn’t the only or even the best path to personal data. As Bruce Schneier wrote this week, most of the home routers that Internet users rely on can be easily breached, and all your data hijacked, destroyed or altered. So for the time being, we should probably be more paranoid about the integrity of the loading docks that move our most sensitive personal and financial data — routers, smartphones, and computers — than we are about newly enlightened toothbrushes, capable of blabbing only our incisor secrets.

Unlike Philip K. Dick, I’m not so afraid of the IoT future. The IoT devices ballyhooed at CES are trivial compared to what we will soon see coming out of the silicon foundries. So many life-improving economic efficiencies can be potentially captured — from energy consumption to healthcare — by IoT sensors chatting over the Internet that we’d be mad to avoid them. The key to integrating IoT devices in our culture is in consumers demanding 1) secure devices, which start with computers, routers, government-collection-by-warrant only and 2) ownership of the data. For too long, too many Internet consumers have wanted to have it both ways: We’ve expected free — i.e., advertising-supported — services (email, calendars, smartphone apps, navigation, cloud storage, news, information and entertainment), but been shocked when the companies supplying the free goods built and sold dossiers on us.

The IoT revolution provides a mental pause that we should use to rethink what we want from the Internet. If we expect privacy and security from the IoT, surely we should expect the same from the regular Internet, which means renegotiating our email, storage, and navigation accounts to put a premium on privacy and security. Privacy and security can’t be free. In real life and on the Internet, you get what you pay for.

As for Ubik‘s Joe Chip, did he ever escape his apartment? Yes. Luckily, a visitor arrived and dropped a coin in the slot on the other side of the smartdoor.

******

In 2009, Kevin Ashton wrote that the phrase “Internet of Things” originated in a presentation he made at Procter and Gamble in 1999. Send earlier sightings of IoT to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I invented Twitter. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A Mombrush system by Xiusolution of South Korea is displayed during the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 8, 2014. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

10 comments

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Neat article Jack! The Internet is only a transition into a new era. It will not last long now in its current form. It was designed at its core for highly ethical and moral people to use to interact with each other. It was never designed for the general public, social trends, and definitely NOT for capitalism even at a national level. International trade with the current IoT is actually ludicrous. It is becoming obvious now and changes will have to be made. Many other countries are far ahead of the US in this regard. But then again their countries aren’t run by mega-corporations.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I’m MUCH more concerned about actions by our overreaching post-Snowden government. The other day, trying to resolve an issue with Medicare (after a 45 minute wait to speak to a functionally useless idiot with no authority and no accountability) I decided to try their “Live Chat”. Here’s the three-paragraph Disclaimer that popped up:

“You are accessing a U.S. Government information system which includes: (1) This computer, (2) this computer network, (3) all computers connected to this network, and (4) all devices and storage media attached to this network or to a computer on this network. [snip] By using this information system, you understand and consent to the flowing:

You have no reasonable expectation of privacy concerning any communication or data transiting or stored on this information system. At any time, and for any lawful Government purpose, the Government may monitor, intercept, and search and seize any communication or data transiting or stored on this information system.

Any communication or data transiting or stored on this information system may be disclosed or used for any lawful Government purpose.”

Unless one clicks the “Accept” button, “we, the people” can no longer access information collected for our use and maintained at our expense. There was no discussion. There was no vote. We have no say when faceless, unelected bureaucrats unilaterally imposed such conditions on us in the course of getting through our day to day lives. BIG BROTHER is here!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@OOTS, I don’t understand your concern, what if the statement was on top of a paper form:
“You are accessing a U.S. Government information system which includes: (1) The paper form you filled out, (2) The processors desk (3) all other desks in the agency, and (4) all folders, drawers, and filing cabinets this agency has. By using this information system, you understand and consent to the flowing:
…”

Big brother always has had the same information, just in old analog ways that were slow and difficult to access.

So, what’s the difference?
In my post I was talking about the security of information from corporations and hackers who would use the information for profit or malicious intent. They could do the same thing 30 years ago with government data if they could get to the filing room and make a copy of the form you filled out.

I fully understand your angst against our government, I share the sentiment. But in the context of this article it seems a bit out of place. Unless the angst is about the government not regulating the internet well enough to ensure its citizens are safe.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc,

a paper form is inert, unconnected. When one uses a computer THEY BOUGHT AND PAID FOR AND OWN, PRIVATELY to access a U,S Government web site, for access to same one now must give up any expectation of privacy to information on THEIR OWN COMPUTER, which meets the Government’s definition of “…all computers connected to this network, and (4) all devices and storage media attached to this network or to a computer on this network”.

By clicking “Accept” to such terms and conditions the Government need no longer get a search warrant or further notify an individual in any manner if they decide it is in the interests of “national security” to download and examine anything and everything from YOUR COMPUTER or any HARD DISK, FLASH DRIVE or CLOUD ACCOUNT, which you now agree is part of “…a U.S. Government information system…”.

I ran into this same disclaimer when accessing the FAA web site! Personal information on ANY personal computer becomes an oxymoron for anyone who needs to interact with any federal agency online.

With your personal acceptance of these conditions you, as an individual, give up all rights to any information on your computer including any passwords stored thereon.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Awesome Jack, tmc and oneofthesheep, as usual.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

Actually @OOTS, your PC is not connected to their network and is not covered under the disclaimer. In this case the government is not “sniffing” your computer. anything you access with http or https is not a “connection”. Though modern browsers now support the WebSockets programming model, it will be many years before the government in general will use them. You are correct though that our PC is not your own. You and everyone else that uses the internet has implicitly signed away your wrights to basically anything and everything on your PC or other device. The tech industry and their lawyers have perfected the “EULA” or End User license Agreement. You have agreed to many of them without knowing it. Some of the worst offenders are the largest tech companies like Adobe, Microsoft, Google, and FaceBook. Adobe runs an entire “secret network” with its Flash and PDF readers. You cant use the internet without them really. Ever wonder why your PC takes so long to start? They have “update” programs that run the instant you start your PC and report back to home base. A casual web user would have four to ten of these programs on their device all trying to report home every time you start up. Gets slow after a while. Don’t worry though, its all perfectly legal and as I said, you agreed to it. Corporate America is far, far more dangerous to America than the US Government is. Any they use the power of the mainstream media, which they own, to make sure you hate the government and not them. Besides, the government is nothing more than a loose, poorly maintained joint venture by various corporations at various times.

Nice chatting again @OOTS.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc,

I appreciate your opinion on this, but I remember Bill Clinton’s obtuse “answers” when being impeached, must specifically how to interpret the word “is”. Even today the Supreme Court is refereeing the interpretation the White House made regarding their authority to make interim appointments and there are judges on both side of the issue of the government sweeping up EVERY cell phone conversation in the name of national security.

When our government is so bold as to just go ahead with whatever wants, interpreting the laws to their own convenience and benefit (or ignoring them entirely) andleaving the burden of objection to citizens on their own time at their own cost, there is GREAT danger.

In this context, I have NO trust that greed government minions would even slow down if they had genuine interest in what is on my computer. In fact, I would tend to think they would take each “AGREE” on a government site as the signal to put that machine in the queue to be swept up and kept just like our cell phone information.

I truly we’re looking at another case here of “I did not object while they came for the Jews…and then they came for me!”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@OOTS, I tend to be a bit of a nerd ( I work with them all day). My point is that the Medicare agency does not inventory your device. Nor do the majority of the agency web sites. The NSA? For sure. That’s what they do. Probably a few more “justice” agencies too.
Since I’m not a politician seeking office, or a defense contractor, I really don’t care what the government collects on me as long as they don’t leak it outside of the government. If corporate America get’s ahold of it, it very likely will be used against me, or leaked to hackers. Again, I don’t fear my government. They’re incapable of anything unless directed by corporate masters.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc,

And my point is “it doesn’t WHICH government agency gathers all this information if it is then accessible to all agencies without question or permission. So, at what point will you, if ever, want to tell the NSA “ENOUGH!”?

Wait long enough and it won’t matter.

You say: “I don’t fear my government.” Well I do, always aware of Thomas Jefferson’s warning that “Any government powerful enough to give you anything you want is also powerful enough to take everything that you have.”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

> I’ve never been sued by a door.
Well of course the billion dollar question is – what about infrastructure that is more telling than a door. Car use, food purchased, pills popped, RFID in everything from your kids smelly diaper to the hair color in your bathroom, magazines, internet usage, guns purchased, ammunition on hand, food preferences, supplies purchased and on and on. Basically your life. At the disposal of the government.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive