The internet of alarming things
More and more data about what we get up to is likely to be sucked up as sensors that offer to help end up spying on us.
The near future looks something like this: you’re driving home from work, and home knows you’re on your way. The home turns on the lights, bumps up the heating, chooses the music you like and unlocks the front door. In the morning, when you head back out to work, the home locks the door behind you, turns off the lights and dials down the heat.
“The home knows where you are all the time,” says tech entrepreneur and commentator Vikram Kumar.
This is a glimpse of the Internet of Things (IoT), the emerging world of interconnected data gathered by sensors in everything from cars to fridges and door locks, which will track what we do and when we do it.
It sounds like sci-fi, but Kumar says the self-readying home is just three to five years away, and glimpses of this hyperconnected future can already be seen. Last year, for instance, Amazon launched a digital assistant called the Echo. It looks simple enough: a speaker-like device that sits on the bench or coffee table, is controlled by voice and responds to the name Alexa. The user can ask for a recipe, inquire about the weather, have the lights turned on or off and call up a movie on the smart TV.
“But that assistant is listening all the time to try to figure out what you want, and all that is sent off to the internet and hopefully stored securely,” says Kumar. “But that’s where there are a lot of privacy issues in terms of what data has been collected, and the fact that it’s in the home makes people extremely nervous.”
But not necessarily nervous enough to stop using it. “Amazon launched a second option that doesn’t listen all the time – you have to tap it to make it listen. But 95% of people are still buying the Echo. So yes, we have concerns, but do we act on them? Mostly not. People often favour convenience over privacy and security.”
As US technology commentator Nicholas Carr wrote recently, the IoT will see us tracked by our cars, clothes and appliances, and the machines and tools we use at work.
Even by our toothbrushes. Kumar points to a “smart” toothbrush developed by Oral B, with an embedded sensor connected to a smartphone app. Why bother? Well, out of that came a clever game to encourage children to brush their teeth (nice) and a whole bunch of data that was useful to insurance companies (slightly creepy).
“So one of the biggest issues in all this is who owns the data,” says Kumar. What happens if the company that developed the smart device that collects all this personal data goes broke? And are the users aware of what terms and conditions they have signed up to?
“Another aspect is that the data provided off these things is then combined with other data sets … and the net result of being monitored every time, everywhere, with a huge amount of data being collected is we get ‘big data’ on steroids … All the issues that we have with big data today are magnified manifold by [the IoT],” Kumar told a Privacy Week conference earlier this year.
It sounds alarming, with wide-ranging privacy issues. Yet Kumar believes the IoT is “basically a good thing”. There will be efficiency benefits from such things as smart street and traffic lights, and sensors that track weather data and provide just enough irrigation to a paddock.
His company, KotahiNet, is building a New Zealand-wide wireless network to support the IoT, and one of its projects involves working with Wairarapa olive growers to use sensors and analytics to understand growth rates, work out when to spray and send out text notifications for frost and heavy rain. It is also working on a smart smoke alarm that will send a text message to the owner when it is set off.
And imagine a smart car that is constantly gathering data on its own performance and aggregating it for the mechanic or supplier. Instead of having to book the vehicle in for a routine oil change, the car will tell you when the oil actually needs changing.
On the other hand, your smart car might get hacked – and will all that data revealing where and when you drive be secure?
Like it or not, the IoT is coming, and it will be big. “There’s a lot of hype. Talk to any analyst and you have billions and trillions [of sensors] being thrown around,” says Kumar. “My view is it’s probably going to be much bigger than even some of the hype we have been listening to, but in the long term. Technology tends to under-deliver in the short term, but it gets underestimated in the long term.” – Rebecca Macfie
Vikram Kumar: “People often favour convenience over privacy and