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internet of things

A new (and dangerous) Internet of Things narrative

July 30, 2014

Typically, when you hear the phrase “Internet of Things,” you can’t help but hashtag it. To some, the Internet of Things (IoT) sounds like a pretty beautiful thing. As IoT rapidly arrives, bringing with it a mind-boggling convergence of networks, data lakes and talking machines wrapped into intelligent systems, the idea appears to captivate the masses. Many others will, predictably, balk at the privacy implications.

There’s an entire blog feed on the fast-growing Medium site exclusively devoted to excitable chatter about the “IoT”: Big Data analyst Ahbi Rele argues that the IoT will really mean the beginning of the “IoU”—or, to cut the pun, the “Internet of You.” The Wall Street Journal’s Steven Norton, while explaining the caution of big business, still gives the impression that he’s sold on IoT because of the potential for “millions of new uses for the products created.”

As futuristic as it seems, the IoT is already in the here and now. If our household appliances aren’t necessarily talking to one another just yet, we do see progressive signs of them talking through one another or passing bits of data and power across veins of circuits and electrical cord. We live the IoT during our smartphone-enhanced interactions, and we drive the IoT as passengers on roadways and streets supposedly synchronized by stoplights—or we tell ourselves that to feel better. There is not an hour of a workday that goes by without a formerly magnificent—but now ubiquitous—moment of IoT that we wouldn’t have experienced five or 10 years ago. If we’re not excited about IoT, it’s because we now take for granted that the technology has made our lives much more convenient.

But beyond that spectacular world of IoT is an emerging new narrative hitting the zeitgeist: a portrait of IoT as a threat. Of course, that discussion has been ongoing since, well, we started calling it the Internet of Things. Gartner’s Earl Perkins casually and copiously covers the trend in research, reminding us that “[t]he concept of the IoT isn’t new at all,” but simultaneously warning that the “the way decision-makers in enterprises think of the practice of security has to change. Their vision of information security, of IT security, of operational technology (OT) security, of physical security—is now obsolete.”

As a result, some very smart people in both the public and private sector warn the IoT ride won’t be as smooth as we think it will be. Fahmida Rashid in Tom’s Guide is fairly blunt and apocalyptic: “The hyper-connected world of the ‘Internet of Things’ may be convenient, efficient and cool, but it has a scary underside: An attack on connected devices is often an attack on the victim's physical space and being, and unlike regular hacking attacks could result in injury or death.” And re/code’s Arik Hesseldahl keeps it real with a grim teaser that asks then answers a scary question: “Excited about the promise of the shiny new Internet of Things? Good. Because hackers are, too.”  

A Future of Warfare forum at a recent Aspen Security conference of defense thought leaders described IoT as the next big geospacial threat. In essence, IoT is scaring the heck out of defense and intelligence officials. “The merger of physical and virtual is really where it’s at,” admitted Dawn Meyerriecks, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s directorate of science and technology. “If we don’t grok that then we’ve got huge problems.”

Hearing those concerns, the full House of Representatives somehow managed to pass two cybersecurity bills (even in the current political climate) earlier this week. Both H.R. 3696 and H.R. 2952 aim to offer federally funded protection for the nation’s infrastructure—casting a digital dome over everything from energy resources to utilities to food distribution systems—along with a bid to enhance the fed’s IT and cyberdefense workforce. One wonders if they’ve really caught up with the challenges. One shouldn’t hold one’s breath during the wait.

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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