As the Internet of Things (IoT) flourishes, billions of devices will swarm the Internet and collect data on each of us, what we do, the environment around us, and nearly everything in our proximity. The huge volume of data generated by all the sensors and device inferences will be subject to significant mining by both responsible parties and malevolent actors, making it a coveted target for hackers.
While many devices may communicate with humans or animals, the essence of IoT is machines communicating with machines and infrastructure. This implies that they all need to speak the same language and perfectly understand the meaning of data and communications received from each other. Is this a realistic expectation?
Thousands of Different Manufacturers
What can we expect with thousands of companies making these IoT devices and no intimate understanding of how they will interact under unanticipated conditions? The potential is reminiscent of the myriad drug interactions. Although communication and data standards exist even now, interpretation and implementation of those can vary.
For example, if Google, Apple, and Ford build self-driving cars but their hierarchy of protecting life versus protecting from property damage is different and their machines make accident avoidance decisions differently, which one wins if they all enter an intersection at the same time?
Technological revolutions seem to have always been fraught with incompatibilities, unintended outcomes, and just flat out blunders. We are all too familiar with that as we use the World Wide Web and find websites that break in one browser but work fine in another. IoT is just another use of the Internet, so we can be sure that there will be plenty of problems—even disasters.
When We Become Dependent
So, what happens when we become dependent on some devices and then they or their control machine fails? For example, roadway sensors may provide information on the ice conditions of the roadway on a bridge ahead of drivers. They’ve come to rely on the warnings. If the sensors or control machine fails, they may drive right onto an icy bridge, possibly being killed in an accident.
In another automobile scenario not unlike recent sticking throttles or faulty ignition switches, a safety device may encounter a programming error, server glitch, software virus, or even a hack. Since it could be triggered by a machine or condition that may affect thousands of vehicles at the same time with no warning, there could be hundreds or thousands of nearly simultaneous accidents. Much property damage could ensue along with injuries and death.
Who is accountable? Who gets sued? If the safety devices were developed using licensed technology and software, does culpability expand to include all contributors or can the responsible technologies be partitioned? And the complexity will be compounded when multiple jurisdictions are involved—such as manufacture in one country and programming in another.
Can Standards and Rules Save Us?
While standards will help in many ways, we clearly need technologically adept advisement, legislation, enforcement, and prosecution. We certainly don’t want a wild west of machine-controlled devices making their own ethics, security, and life preservation decisions according to their individual creator’s inclinations.
A structured set of principles and mandates should guide all IoT device development so that they respect privacy and security according to individual user’s preferences. Since the Internet of Things introduces a new set of disciplines, we cannot just hire experts to build these devices and we are certain to encounter breakdowns and unexpected machine and device interactions. Standardized de-escalation algorithms could help manage unanticipated events, but we really need fail-safes so we don’t end up living in an environment like that depicted in the movie, WestWorld.
Of course there are many reasons to believe that the Internet of Things will improve our lives. Certainly, in many ways it will. There are risks that come with this revolution, nonetheless. We must therefore be aware of ways that these Internet of Things devices and their control machines can invade our security and privacy while exposing us to many threats—known and unknown.