Internet Of Things: Navigating Privacy, Data Security, And Client Trust In The Age Of Big Data

Even before there was a World Wide Web, there was an Internet of Things.

In 1991, a couple of researchers at the University of Cambridge Computer Lab set out to solve the problem of making fruitless quests through the building to a shared coffee pot in the Lab's Trojan Room. Using a video camera, a frame grabbing card, and a Motorola 68000 series-based computer running VME, they created a networked sensor that could show the current state of the pot. First configured as an X-Windows application, the Trojan Coffee Pot server was converted to HTTP in 1993, becoming one of the early stars of the Internet. It was soon joined by other networked sensors, including a number of hot tubs.

Today, millions of devices expose what they see, hear, and otherwise sense to the Internet. And thanks to cheap embedded systems, they don't need an old VME or Windows box to do it. Billions of other devices that defy the usual definition of "computer" are communicating over networks, almost entirely with other machines. These "Internet of Things" (IoT) devices send telemetry to and receive instructions from software both nearby and on far-flung servers. Software and sensors are controlling more of what once was done by humans, often more efficiently, conveniently, and cheaply.

This practice is changing how we interact with the physical world. We talk to our televisions and they listen, thanks to embedded sensors and voice processing chips that can tap into the cloud for corrections. We drive down the road and sensors gather data from our cell phones to measure the flow of traffic. Our cars have mobile apps to unlock them. Health devices send data back to doctors, and wristwatches let us send our pulse to someone else. The digital has become physical.

It has been only eight years since the smartphone emerged, introducing the new age of always-on mobile connectivity, and networked devices now already outnumber the people on the planet. By some estimates, within the next five years, the number of devices connected to the Internet will outnumber the people on the planet by over seven to one—50 billion machines, ranging from networked sensors to industrial robots.

Inexpensive computing power, cheap or free connectivity, and the relative ease with which new software and chips are making connecting will make it possible for governments, companies, and even individuals to collect detailed data from IoT devices and automate them in some way. It will be the things' Internet; we'll just be living in it.

But given the state of IoT today, that might be a bumpy tenancy if certain issues aren't ironed out now. Security, privacy, and reliability concerns are the main barriers to a sudden arrival of some singularity where we all live as happy cogs in an IoT machine world. So how will the human social order take to a world of persistent networked everything?

Plugging into the spew

  • An airplane being assembled at an Airbus facility. The company is developing "smart tools" that use local and network intelligence as part of its "factory of the future" initiative.
  • An Airbus worker alongside a two-armed robot. IoT-enabled tooling is being developed to help humans collaborate with robots without having to think about it.
  • Pattern recognition and tracking demonstrations for AIrbus' smart tool development.
  • This data overlay in a lab at GE Software is based on sensor data from Hydro Quebec, showing potential sites for outages based on weather data.
  • A redacted list of some IoT devices (in this case, Schneider Electric PLC industrial controls connected to Ethernet) visible to the naked Internet and catalogued by the Shodan search engine.
  • A prototype of GrowBox, an IoT hydroponic system that uses sensors to optimize growth of... tomatoes.
  • The US Army has developed networked sensors in helmets to measure concussive forces soldiers are exposed to in an effort to help protect them from brain injuries.

>The promise of IoT is "smart" everything. Nest's Internet-connected Learning thermostat, Nest Cam surveillance camera, and Protect networked smoke alarm promise a more energy-efficient, safer home. IoT technology is a key part of the pitch for "smart cities," "smart buildings," "smart factories," and just about every other "smart" proposal from sensor manufacturers, networking companies, and big technology consultancies. Seemingly everyone is looking for a piece of the biggest potential collection of integration projects ever. Sometimes the "smart" is relatively close to the sensor itself, but it often relies on a remote cloud service or data center to process the information and control actions.

On the consumer side, while devices like Nest's get much of the attention, wearable IoT devices are just starting to take off—despite the relatively low impact so far of high-profile efforts like the Apple Watch. "The Apple Watch may be on a slower liftoff cycle than other recent Apple hardware launches, but it has a complex number of use cases which are finding their home, purpose, and meaning," said Mark Curtis, the chief client officer at Fjord, Accenture's design consultancy. Within the next two to three years, he predicted, wrist-based devices will lose the need to be tethered to a smartphone. "At the same time, interactions between wearables and nearables (e.g., beacons, Amazon Echo, connected cars) will grow."

The health field is the most immediate fit for wearables, because they can gather data that has a benefit without conscious human action. "A good example is our Fjord Fido diabetes platform," Curtis said. "It requires complex linking between devices and data but would not have been possible without a smartwatch."

Governments are especially interested in the analytical powers of IoT-collected data for all sorts of reasons, from tuning services at the most basic levels to understanding how to respond in an emergency—as well as collecting revenue. Traffic lights and even pedestrian crossing buttons could be used as networked sensors, said Michael Daly, chief technology officer for Raytheon Cybersecurity and Special Missions. "You could see how many times is this being used and how long people are waiting to cross, then adjust traffic flow accordingly," he said.

Industry is equally interested in the data that can be tapped into by IoT, and more companies are examining the benefits of using the embedded intelligence and network connectivity of IoT devices to improve their own systems and products. In most of these applications, National Instruments Executive Vice President Eric Starkloff told Ars, companies are most interested in instrumenting their operations, "looking for events that are a warning of impending failure" in systems or squeezing additional efficiency out of their operations. So far, only a small fraction of industrial systems have network-based telemetry gathering, and Starkloff said that the greatest opportunities for growth over the next five years are in "brown field" applications. These are instances of simply upgrading or enhancing existing hardware in factories, refineries, office buildings and other physical plants with IoT goodness.

Manufacturing companies have been among the earliest adopters of IoT. General Electric has pushed forward its own massive internal investment in IoT technology to collect analytic data from everything from gas turbine engines to locomotives. IoT is also part of the "factory of the future" concept embraced by aircraft manufacturer Airbus, where National Instruments is helping the company put "smart IoT technologies into their smart tooling and robotics systems that work alongside human operators," according to Starkloff.

Airbus' IoT interest is as much about ensuring the precision of the company's manufacturing as it is about sensing potential problems. "Today they put planes together mostly manually," Starkloff said. "They want to move to the point where tools are intelligent—where a tool knows whether a rivet was put in correctly." To do that, the analytics tracking system performance "has to be close, not up in cloud," he explained. "They need devices communicating locally—smart tooling connected to smart wearables, such as glasses with a heads-up display."

In a way, Airbus' vision mirrors one that Boeing attempted in the 1990s with augmented reality (one the company has continued to invest in ever since). It's also similar to some of the methods of tying IoT technology to augmented reality visualization we saw at GE Software earlier this year, where technicians could be directed to equipment needing service in a manufacturing environment and stepped through the process with visual cues. But Airbus' setup also includes using IoT technology to communicate between human operated tools and robotic systems, passing data over a local network to allow machines and humans to work collaboratively.

The Department of Defense has similar designs on IoT, though the systems that the DOD wants to enhance are often soldiers themselves. Embedded and wearable systems are turning soldiers into nodes on the DOD network, both to enhance their battlefield performance and to track their well-being. Aside from the work on autonomous drones and other sensors, the Army has developed networked helmet sensors that can help detect the severity of concussive blows (a bit of tech that the NFL has moved to adopt as well). The military, through a number of DARPA projects and other labs, continues to develop wearable technologies that will allow soldiers to interact with other systems.

At a recent conference sponsored by the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), scientists discussed the possibility of "implanted" sensors that could communicate what a soldier was doing without the soldier having to consciously communicate it. Thomas F. Greco, director of intelligence at TRADOC, said that IoT technology coupled with wearable sensors could result in a "precision of knowing," reducing ambiguity on the battlefield and allowing commanders to have absolute knowledge of what troops were doing. But he also said that having that kind of data could affect the order and discipline of soldiers. "Ambiguity is a kind of lubricant in personal relationships," he said, wondering how that would change "when you have total knowledge and accountability."

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