The Spooky Side of the Internet of Things

Consider the following scenario: everything in your home is “smart”. This isn’t too far a stretch of the imagination.  It’s starting to happen.  The phone in your pocket, the TV in your living room, the refrigerator in your kitchen, your toaster, your stove, your bed, you get the picture.  And most of these items are personalized to your habits and connected to the internet and with one another.  Your TV has been programmed to change the channel to AMC every Sunday at 8:59 PM because it knows The Walking Dead is on at 9.  If the TV happens to be off, it records it for you so you don’t miss out.  (Sweet!)  If you leave the house in a rush and forget to set the home alarm system, you can check your alarm app on your phone to see if your system is activated.  But then you remember, you’ve programmed it to automatically activate every day from 8 AM to 5 PM since you’ll be away at work.  (Phew!)  Your bathtub automatically runs some warm water at 6 PM because it has recognized that that is how you frequently like to unwind after a long day at work.  (How thoughtful?)     

Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT), the smart age of technology that we are making a beeline for.  IoT is a term that refers to any “thing” that connects, stores and/or transfers information via the internet.  Up until this point, the most widely used items that fit this category have been computers and phones.  Then came some really innovative, convenient and just downright cool IoT products such as TV’s, thermostats, light bulbs, sound systems and thousands of apps.  Now, it seems that makers of every item in your home are looking to join in on the smart bandwagon as well.  And I do mean every item.     

Useful or not, the truth is that the smarter the items in our lives get, the more we inch away from being in control of our privacy.  Just think of how much personal information your smartphone has access to via your apps alone: banking info, common driving routes, your browsing habits, personal photos, health and fitness information.  These are all things saved into our device for the sake of convenience and customization.  Considering that these apps often require this information to function, this is one of the main ways our smartphones learn so much about us.  But what happens to all of this data?  Is it being collected and shared to make our lives easier by making predictions for us?  Is it to advertise specific items to us?  Who is guarding this information?  And where is this IoT road taking us?

Ads, Ads, Ads

Recently, I was on my phone browsing for couches to buy for my living room.  I didn’t spend much time looking nor did I even make a purchase.  The next day I logged in to Facebook on my laptop, scrolled down the page and noticed an advertisement from the same furniture company that I was searching through the day prior.  Two separate devices communicated with each other about my browsing history and determined that I would enjoy this particular ad.  It’s called targeted advertising, and it works this way because of all the information we allow to be accessible on our devices and the connectivity between them. 

Chances are that you’ve probably experienced this as well.  On the surface, targeted ads may just be slightly annoying and are easily ignored by scrolling on.  However, what happens when you introduce the rest of the smart items and devices like those mentioned at the beginning of this post?  Is it too farfetched to imagine getting solicitations for sleep aid medications because your smart mattress noticed that you’ve been tossing and turning at night more than usual?   Will your smart fridge start making suggestions about what to buy and where to shop based on the fact that it detected that you’re running low on chicken?  Targeted ads may not be disconcerting to everyone, but it is important to understand that every internet-enabled device we use is learning a little bit more about us, and in many cases, stashing it away for future use or reference.  Connect them all together, and this data essentially becomes representative of all our likes, dislikes, financial history, health records, dietary preferences and so on.  Maybe giving companies access to this information simply leads to more junk mail or ads.  Maybe it is used to determine whether you are a good candidate for credit.  Or it may provide criminals with a target to aim for.       

What a Hack

The internet has allowed for criminals to strike from anywhere in the world.  An unsuspecting online shopper in San Diego could potentially have their account hacked by a thief in Antarctica (provided he has a really, really strong mobile hotspot).  Companies and organizations can be just as vulnerable to these data breaches as well.  In fact, we have an entire database dedicated to logging such reported instances that date back to 2005.  These are all companies that were entrusted with keeping their customers data safe.  But criminals have become so sophisticated that they manage to continue to bypass the most up-to-date security measures. 

This is one of the most troubling facts to take into consideration when discussing the Internet of Things.  All of the data collected has to go somewhere.  If you happen to be one of the unlucky people to have their data accessed in a data breach, then that is potentially a lot of personal information for criminals to have at their disposal.  Overcoming identity theft can vary from taking years to repair some damaged credit to having to explain to your potential employer that even though your name, address and social security numbers match, you aren’t the John Smith III wanted by police for 4 murders across 3 states.  The more information we give to our devices, the greater the potential risk for damage.  It’s that simple.

And then, there is always the danger of remote access.  Any internet-connected device is susceptible to this.  It is one reason that we get constant software updates on our phones and computers.  Now, with the Internet of Things expanding to all the items in our lives, the possibility of remote control hacking poses even more danger.  One of the most well publicized examples of this was when “The Jeep Hackers” hijacked a Chrysler Jeep over the internet and actually caused it to stop while on a highway to prove how unsecure these digital systems still are.  Now imagine a hacker gaining access to every internet-enabled device in your home the very same way.  The result wouldn’t be someone simply being able to turn up the heat on your thermostat or cause the lights to flicker at night.  They’d be able to use the speakers in your house.  Or manipulate the smart locks on your doors in get in.  Or control any cameras in your home to watch your every move.  Sound crazy?  Just a couple of months ago, a Washington family discovered that someone had hacked their baby monitor over the internet and was able to watch and speak to their 3-year-old son.  If the thought of a stranger being able to watch your every move from his or her own couch isn’t spooky enough for you, consider this: we haven’t even seen the full extent of the IoT yet.

Future

Internet of Things isn’t a very descriptive term.  In fact, it’s quite vague.  “Things” could literally be almost any physical object you can imagine.  But that is what can make the IoT so fascinating and alarming at the same time.  We don’t know how far it will spread.  But we’re pretty confident that it isn’t going away anytime soon.  The market for Internet of Things is expected to reach $1.7 trillion in spending by the year 2020.  With investment like that, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to find ourselves living in a world where smart clothing, smart roads, or entire smart buildings become an industry standard.

The next big leap would appear to be the creation of the first smart house.  This concept is not new.  (In fact, Disney channel even did a movie about this back in 1999.)  A truly smart house will likely include internet-capable structures and surfaces, from walls to countertops, in addition to all the devices currently on the market.  This alone, as with many of the other IoT items, wouldn’t be a bad thing.  It could be extremely helpful to have a building that could measure the integrity of the beams in your house after an earthquake.  And if you had a wall or ceiling that could stream videos and convert your entire home into your very own movie theater, you’ll instantly become the coolest kid on the block.  But again, this would also provide others with an even more comprehensive way of tracking activity and gathering data.  Our houses, much like the one in the movie, would be learning how to cater to our wants and needs.  Set aside the possible scenario where a malfunction results in Katey Sagal holding you hostage inside your own home.  What would happen when we become too dependent on this type of living, the way we have all become so dependent on our phones?  What long term effects will an Internet of Things world have on simple human interaction?  What will being in a constant state of surveillance do to our privacy?  Well we won’t need to wonder much longer, because it isn’t a matter of if anymore.  It’s just a matter of when.

If you have any questions or complaints about the Internet of Things, or any other privacy related matter, use the orange of blue buttons at the top of the page to let us know!