I was talking to my voice-controlled thermostat the other day.
“I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the Internet of Things,” I admitted, sheepishly.
The thermostat didn’t reply. It waited for me to say something it could respond to, like “Make it five degrees warmer.” Deep down, I know it understood what I meant.
We are nearly finished connecting everyone to the Internet, save for the 20 percent or so who’d rather just watch TV. But we have only just begun to connect everything else. Many predict that within a few years most of the devices inside our homes and our cars, as well as the ones we wear on our bodies, will be connected to each other via something called the Internet of Things.
If you haven’t encountered that phrase before, get used to it. You’ll be hearing a lot about the Internet of Things here and elsewhere over the next few years. The IoT could change our lives in ways even the people creating it haven’t imagined yet. Some of the changes will be wicked cool, others scary.
Machines 1, People 0
In my house, the Internet of Things has already arrived, mostly in the form of devices that maintain a running dialogue with my smart phone. For example, when our sweet-but-dimwitted dog Hoover bursts through the electronic fence and goes to visit his four-legged friends in the neighborhood, the Tagg GPS tracker attached to his collar sends me a text message. If I want to find out where the little scamp has been, I can map his route on the Tagg Web site. Did our other dog, the obstinately intelligent Mason, open the front door again to let Hoover out and the cat in? My Vivant home security system sends me a text for that too, and lets me relock the doors with a click.
When my 17 year old arrives home from school suspiciously early, claiming that his Latin teacher told him they had nothing to do that day (as if), I get a text alert. No, I did not attach a Tagg tracker to his collar (though I have been sorely tempted.) But I do have an Audiovox Car Connection plugged into the computer of his ancient minivan, which sends me a text whenever he leaves home and arrives at school, or vice versa.
And we have not one but two connected thermostats, the Nest and the Honeywell WiFi Smart Thermostat, which allow me to control the temperature of my home from thousands of miles away.
But sometimes these things can get a little too chatty. Last night, after our Internet kept cutting in and out during a windstorm, our Skydog Smart WiFi Router sent me 14 texts between the hours of 1 and 3 am warning me about “network connectivity issues.” Then there’s the Spotter sensor on my living room wall, which alerts me every time it hears a loud noise, sees a bright light, or detects motion. It’s like having the world’s most neurotic roommate on speed dial.
I have now reached the point in my life where the text messages I receive from machines outnumber the ones I get from humans. That is perhaps a comment on how pathetic my social life has become. But it’s nothing compared to what’s coming next. In a few years, machines will cut us small-brained humans out of the equation entirely. By the year 2020, machine-to-machine communications will dwarf person-to-person interactions on the Internet, according to Swedish tech giant Ericsson. And these gizmos will largely be chattering to each other on our behalf.
The classic scenario: On your commute home, your car sends a signal to your WiFi network to crank up the heat, adjust the lighting, cue up your favorite tunes, tell the oven to defrost and cook that pot roast you popped into it that morning, and order your robotic bartender to mix a batch of martinis just the way you like them.
The technology to do this is already here (yes, even the robot bartender.) Today, though, consumer electronics companies have to convince Joe and Jane Consumer to add these devices to their home networks. Eventually they’ll be built into the walls and floors of our homes and the dashboards of our cars. Constant connectivity will be like plumbing and electricity, something we only think about when it doesn’t work.
When Things Go Bad
The Internet of Things has already changed my family’s life, mostly for the better. We’re able to track down our wayward canine before the dogcatcher does. The Car Connection not only helps us locate our son, it also gives us feedback on how good a driver he is (better than his father, it turns out). The Skydog router is easily the best home network management tool I’ve ever seen. We never have to return home because we left the AC on or a door unlocked. And that’s not even scratching the surface of the benefits that connected medical devices, utility meters, and other smart “things” will ultimately bring.
But there’s also a dark side to the Internet of Things few people talk about. Every time you introduce a new connected device you increase the chances that bad guys will find a way into your life, notes Paul Ferguson, who heads up the threat intelligence team for security firm Internet Identity (IID).
IID predicts that by 2015, hackers will be able to “provoke chaos inside your home, burning your house down by hacking your oven to flood your house with gas and ignite it,” and other terrifying scenarios. On the other hand, two years ago IID predicted someone would be murdered via the Internet, thanks to a hack attack on a connected medical device. We are still waiting for the first body to drop, or for the new CBS cop show “CSI: Internet.”
Still, if cybercriminals can lock up your data and demand ransom for it – as we saw with the Cryptolocker malware last fall – what’s to stop them from holding your HVAC hostage in the dead of winter? Or hacking your security system to burglarize your home? If there’s a way to abuse your personal devices to make money, digital thieves will find it.
Another big concern is what happens to the mounds of data that connected devices will produce about who you are and what you like to do. Somebody somewhere would probably pay to find out which brand of vodka our robotic bartender is pouring, or what irresponsible pet owners we are. If there’s a way to abuse your personal data to make money, digital marketers will find it.
The debate over how to handle security and privacy on the Internet of Things has barely gotten started, but the devices are already coming by the truckload. As consumers, we need to be fully aware of the IoT’s pitfalls before we hand our lives over to it.
On that topic, my thermostat is mute. But I’m pretty sure it agrees with me.