The Internet of Things

100 years ago, people imagined flying policemen to patrol the skies, buses powered by whales and machines that pumped out chickens via intensive breeding (see canyouactually’s article for more hilarious photos.) Whilst individuals from the early 20th century might’ve had some far-fetched ideas about the future, some of them aren’t too outlandish. For example, battery farming is now a real practice (minus the chicken-producing machine) and although we don’t have flying machines yet, we do have the internet of things.

Points for creativity. ‘Whale bus’ by Jean-Marc Cote, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

What are the internet of things (aka IoT)? It may sound like a phrase haphazardly thrown together, but the internet of things are pretty technical, modern and chances are, you already own one of these devices. Jacob Morgan from Forbes defines the IoT as devices that communicate with each other over a connected network— therefore, they require the internet to work. These include Fitbits, Amazon Echo and even entire smart cities, such as Barcelona. Healthcare is also a sector in which the IoT is proving to be highly promising. For example, Gubbi et al suggest a home monitoring system for the elderly to control central heating, air conditioners and monitor washing machines. This will improve the quality of life for the elderly whilst reducing hospital costs, changing healthcare from a reactive to a proactive approach.

Example of a ‘smart house’ that can keep track of the health of its occupants.

All of the above examples show our increasing reliance on the IoT. Michael Vax from the-future-of-e-commerce also shows how the same technology can achieve different goals for different people, by ‘using the power of data to understand and serve each customer.’ After all, personalisation and usability come part of the IoT parcel. However, this does come at a price — security and privacy are being sacrificed. So, how exactly is this happening, and should we be concerned?

‘Graffiti in Shoreditch’ by KylaBorg, [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the catch?

Take for example a smart TV, which is an IoT device. According to Ofcom, 3 out of 10 UK households own a smart TV as of 2016. Would it shock you if you found out these high-tech and expensive smart TVs can easily be hacked? Just a quick Google search of ‘smart TV hack’ throws up thousands of articles documenting privacy concerns and ease of hacking smart TVs. Dan Goodin from arstechnicaUK reports that once hackers have access to a smart TV, they can attack other systems such as PCs and mobile phones, and even spy on the occupants of the house through the camera and microphone. Additionally, an experiment run by the BBC showed just how easy it was to bug a number of IoT devices in a household, ranging from baby monitors to wifi cameras; smart TVs aren’t the only affected devices. Mark Ward, the author of the BBC article, writes how;

‘Entering a default login name and password (for the wifi camera) granted access to the images and sounds the device was capturing. There was no prompt to change these credentials to protect privacy.’

Put simply, IoT devices are easy to hack because of their basic web server software and the manufacturers were focusing on personalisation and usability, rather than privacy and safety. Moreover, IoT devices are often difficult to update due to fear of bricking the device, and that’s if they have the capability of being updated in the first place. Understandably, people are angry and worried, and big-name companies who manufacture these devices such as Samsung are being put on the spot.

‘Data Computer Hacking’, [CC0], via Max Pixel.

What does the future hold?

We’ve established 2 main points now, which are essentially the pros and cons of IoT;

· IoT devices can enhance peoples’ lives, connect more people, integrate things more seamlessly and bring us closer to web 3.0.

· IoT can also be a hidden danger lurking within many peoples’ homes, that can result in lack of data protection, privacy issues and less control.

Despite its drawbacks, it’s important to remember that the IoT is still in its early phases, so there are many improvements and possibilities to come. For example, Jat Singh and Julia Powles from the Guardian write about how the IoT has made technology more tangible and familiar, in comparison to web 2.0 technologies that are abstract and more difficult to grasp (literally.) Therefore, the ‘realness’ of such IoT technology will make privacy and data protection issues more apparent to users. Google Glass is a prime example of this. By blurring the physical and digital realms, its release into the world was met with criticism and legislative action, resulting in the device being banned from cinemas, casinos and hospitals, amongst many other places. Whilst Google Glass received a lot of negative publicity, it forced people to think and talk about social, privacy and legal issues. Although the same issues exist for web 2.0 technologies, many people have turned a blind eye due to its ‘intangible’ nature. Now, people are now more aware of the implications of using technology. Manufacturers can also ensure that privacy controls are obvious and built in as part of the customisability that most IoT devices boast about.

Tech enthusiast and blogger, Robert Scoble, ‘jokes’ about some of the social norms Google Glass has disrupted.

To summarize

Now that we’ve discussed the pros, cons and the future of the IoT, what can we take away from this? It’s obvious that the development of the IoT is strong, as more devices are being produced each year and more of us are relying on them everyday, whether we like it or not. However, as consumers, we can educate ourselves about online safety and security, to ensure we reap more of the benefits and less of the threats of such technology. Mike Turner suggests on Computer Weekly that consumers can change passwords frequently, update devices as soon as the latest update is released and disable information sharing. Businesses must also address data protection concerns, by releasing transparent privacy policies e.g. clearly explaining how consumer data collected from IoT products are used, including an option to opt out. They can also integrate the best security practices with the IoT product development process, not afterwards when it’s too late. Despite all the privacy and security scares, we should not be afraid of using the IoT. We should have an educated understanding of such technology, that will allow us to protect ourselves whilst still enjoying its many benefits in the years to come.


Reflecting on the topics and skills learned from the Digital Society. ‘Lake Balaton’, [CC0], via Pexels.

Reflection

Why did I choose to enrol in the Digital Society? Well, it covered topics which I already had an interest in and background knowledge of, due to my degree in IT Management for Business. The use of a new learning platform, Medium, and different methods of assessment also intrigued me. Now that the end of the semester is in sight, taking this module has been very enjoyable and supplemented my degree, by introducing me to new skills, ideas and topics.

For example, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about real life applications of the IoT and Smart Cities. I had already learned the theory behind how such technologies work through cloud computing from core modules, so it was fascinating to see how the theory is put into practice. Also, as someone who enjoys gaming, Digilabs were particularly awesome. It was fun interacting with HTC Vive and WizDish ROVR, which made me consider how much more technology can bring to society, and how far technologies have advanced over the years. For example, I learned about Moore’s Law in a module last semester, which states that the number of transistors doubles every 18–24 months. Given the rate at which new and improved technologies are being developed, its pretty believable. However, after some further research, I found numerous articles such as Tom Simonite’s from Review Technology, stating that Moore’s law would be redundant in the next few years, due to the difficulty of making silicon transistors any smaller. I definitely can’t see the development of new technologies stopping anytime soon (as mentioned in the ‘To Summarise’ section), but does this mean we will see a decline in the speed at which new technologies are produced? Or, will technologies of the future be less innovative than how we’ve imagined them to be? These are all questions and further research on other modules that the Digital Society has prompted in me, helping me to think critically and improving my analysis skills.

YouTube gaming star, PewDiePie, gives the HTC Vive a spin.

The methods of assessment of the Digital Society were different to what I’m used to, but I enjoyed working on something new, which made me more engaged with the module and helped me learn new skills. For example, learning how to attribute was quite tricky at first, but given the materials on Medium and a bit of help and practice, I feel much more confident in attributing images now. As a person who enjoys writing, I believe this is a useful skill to have if I ever write a blog for myself or a company, and I think the time I spent looking into attributing images has improved my researching skills. Similarly, I had to research how to create a Pecha Kucha, which was previously a foreign phrase to me. As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words and I believe it’s a very effective presentation style (much better than looking at a wall of text), therefore improving my presentation skills and style.

Overall, this module has encouraged me to develop new skills and think critically about digital societies, particularly about the future of living in such a connected world, and the growing issues and ethics of online security.

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