Internet of Things: Machines of Loving Grace or Maximum Overdrive?

Technological change produces tremendous opportunities. Sometimes, it also gives us pause.

Take the television as an example. To say the television has become a common household feature is an understatement. The entertainment value of a television has brought forth a remarkable amount of joy for many households since its widespread introduction. But some are concerned about the potential negative effects of watching television, especially for young children. Perhaps it is content that matters, as a recent study found that that Sesame Street improved school readiness. Early pioneers of the technology probably never predicted hundreds of channels and reality programming to become ubiquitous.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) may be the next technology to infiltrate our homes, and it is likely to carry parallel concerns as television did.  In general terms, the IoT is the push to use the power of the Internet to link common physical objects with software and sensors to work together. A few years ago, I heard about a refrigerator that tweets, and though it’s still hard for me to imagine using that particular feature, I can definitely get behind technology that has my refrigerator update a shopping list and spot spoiled food.

With an estimated 26 billion units by 2020, the Internet of Things presents an impressive new market that will assuredly lead to innovations that will improve efficiency and make our lives more comfortable. This interconnected world will also generate a lot of data and new access into our lives. With an increasingly connected world, there are two common concerns: privacy and security.

Privacy

By definition, the Internet of Things will bring new privacy concerns into our homes. Many of the potential objects that will have new sensors, like a toothbrush for example, simply are not items that we have traditionally had to worry about providing private details about our lives. Many people might not be super excited to have their dental hygiene habits exposed via a hack.

One habit being revealed might not be too disconcerting, but it’s not hard to see how much privacy could be lost as the mountain of data collected by these various objects adds up. There is concern that these little intrusions in privacy can add up to large privacy concerns. It’s still early to tell exactly how our privacy could be compromised by hacking into the new objects, but security experts say its important to be aware of how our personal data is gathered en masse because that is where the financial incentive exists for would be hackers.

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Security

The normal, good old-fashioned Internet already allows hackers to gather our personal information and use it maliciously. By connecting more parts of our lives together, the Internet of Things can make life easier. But it’s also giving outsiders more potential access points into our lives.  With numerous items connected to you, the fear that your information is only as secure as the weakest link matters.

As our “dumb” objects become “smart” with new sensors and Internet connectivity, there is the risk that our possessions can be used against us or stolen. As an example, we’ve already seen that hackers can steal cars or potentially cause an accident while a car is being operated.  There are even concerns that hospital systems could be hacked to deliver lethal doses to patients.

An Uncertain Future

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has called on industry leaders to establish best practices in the Internet of Things to mitigate these types of privacy and safety concerns. The Internet of Things is coming and it is easy to see a wide range of possible futures with connected objects as omnipresent in our homes as the television. Certainly the growth of the Internet of Things could usher in a dystopian world where machines come to life and take over, but I’d prefer to envision a future where entrepreneurs use the Internet of Things to create a Richard Brautigan world where we’re “all watched over by machines of loving grace.”

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derek ozkal

Derek Ozkal

Derek Ozkal is a program officer in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he assists with writing and analysis of various Research & Policy initiatives and administers grants, which includes managing and overseeing assigned grant portfolios, monitoring grantee performance, and reviewing grant proposals.