Nima Boscarino

Thoughts on the Internet of Things

March 08, 2017

Last time on this column, we looked at some of the uses for cloud computing. One such application was dealing with “Big Data”, as the cloud gives us access to the necessary computational power needed to make sense of massive amounts of data. But where does all this data come from? Some data is submitted to the Internet by users in forms like tweets or snaps, but there’s also a large amount of data being polled from devices with sensors scattered all over the globe.

Welcome to the Internet of Things! Since the early 2000’s there’s been a movement to connect everyday appliances and devices to the Internet, for the purposes of both gathering data and controlling the devices from online interfaces. By now, it almost feels like there aren’t any household items left that haven’t had the title “Smart” slapped onto them. Smart thermostats, smart fridges, smart scales… the list is endless!

“Smart” appliances can offer advantages over traditional appliances when it comes to things like tracking data over time. For example, the Fitbit Aria is a smart scale that makes tracking your daily weight, BMI and body fat percentage a breeze. Not only does it immediately record your measurements and store them on your private online profile, but it integrates with other Fitbit items you might own to help you reach whatever fitness goals you may have by sending you calorie intake suggestions and other tips.

Smart items like the Aria try to take all the activities surrounding the original product and condense them into one product that does it all. Tracking your weight and making meal plans are activities that have always been closely tied together, so it’s not that ridiculous to combine them with one item. On the other side of the spectrum are products like Samsung’s Family Hub fridge, a fridge that streams Internet radio, acts as an electronic bulletin board for your family, displays recipes and even gives your phone access to cameras built inside of the fridge so you can check what you need to stock up on while grocery shopping. Compared to the something like a simple smart scale, the Family Hub seems pretty bloated with unnecessary functionality.

Beyond appliances that we personally interact with, the concept of the Internet of Things also extends to devices that passively monitor their surroundings, or elements that might be part of large automated systems. In manufacturing plants, for example, equipment and machinery are fitted with sensors and networked together to automate processes, which can help prevent potential failures.

Connecting items to the Internet doesn’t come without its drawbacks, however. One big concern is the potential threat that’s posed to our privacy. The data collected by our smart devices could very easily be used to monitor our movements, spending habits, or even our conversations. Because of this, some critics are worried that normalizing this trend of consensual monitoring and tracking could lead to more insidious digital surveillance in the future.

Besides privacy from companies and the government, there’s also the issue of security vulnerabilities in smart devices which can be exploited by hackers. The high rate at which new products are being developed means that more and more devices are entering the market with serious software bugs, making it easier for people to maliciously control devices they don’t own. With a smart fridge, the risk is fairly low as a hacker might just turn the fridge off and spoil your produce, but as you move on to other devices like smart smoke detectors and home security systems, it’s easy to see how a security breach could lead to catastrophic events. Even some cars are connected to the Internet, which in some cases has exposed ways for hackers to slam a car’s brakes remotely, or even kill the engine completely!

As we move forward, this network of connected devices is only going to get bigger and bigger, with an estimated 50 billion objects by 2020. Let’s make sure we keep the network safe and healthy by making smart choices about the sensors we add to our lives.

(This was originally published in the Capilano Courier in March 2017)