The 'Internet of Things' pits George Jetson vs. George Orwell

A model poses in an LED dress in Tokyo. The dress, with light-emitting diode devices installed inside, was designed by Swarovski and Hussein Chalayan ...
A model in Tokyo poses in an LED dress designed by Swarovski and Hussein Chalayan. One day soon, electronic clothing like this will even be connected to the Internet. Kim Kyung Hoon

Doors that magically unlock as you approach. Clothes that advise you when they're out of style, then tell your car how to get to the nearest sale. Cough medicine that tells you when it's time to go to the doctor. This magical, futuristic world now called the "Internet of Things" is coming straight from science fiction into your home. Like "the cloud," the "Internet of Things" is largely a marketing term designed to create buzz around a series of not-yet-ready-for-prime time technologies, and also like the cloud, you won't be able to avoid hearing about it soon.

But this time, the stakes are much higher. It’s a full-on cage match between George Jetson and George Orwell.

Maybe it's a miracle to think about high-tech insulin pumps that patients never need to touch, while doctors control them from thousands of miles away. But what happens when a hacker hijacks that insulin pump — or simply threatens to hijack it, and messages the patient that he'd better pay a ransom to keep it functioning properly? Those runaway gadgets from "The Jetsons" cartoon might not be such a laughing matter in real life.

We already have an Internet of Things — your PC, laptop, tablet, everything already connected to the Internet. What the "IoT" crowd means by "things" is "everything." They want to attach tiny computers and sensors to just about every object in the world, and make them all talk to each other.

"We have everyday objects we've been interacting with for years, and many of these objects are now gaining intelligence and connectivity," said Jason Johnson, leader of the IoT consortium. "We will create this fabric of connected devices."

The back story
The idea of putting little connected computers everywhere, even floating in the air around us, isn't new. You'll find popular references to "ubiquitous computing" nearly 20 years ago. Since then, there has been one failed effort after another to bring James Bond-like automation to our lives. Take the hobbyist X-10 technology, which let users turn off household lights via remote control — X-10 gadgets had trouble competing with The Clapper, much less "The Jetsons."

Today, continually shrinking sensors and processors put us on the threshold of the Internet of Things. In fact, some of this futuristic wizardry already has a devoted following. Members of the burgeoning Quantified Self movement use iPhones and wearable sensors like Fitbit to measure their heart rate, blood pressure and sleep patterns, upload that data into spreadsheets, sometimes even share it automatically via Twitter and Facebook. They use the data to find the optimal temperature to go for a run, or the best humidity conditions in which to sleep.

Fitbit system combines wireless trackers, a Wi-Fi smart scale, smartphone apps
The Fitbit system combines wireless trackers, a Wi-Fi smart scale, smartphone apps and cloud-based information management to help people keep in shape.

Advanced medicine also already employs many of these technologies. For instance, probes with cameras work their way through our circulatory systems into our hearts, sending back detailed pictures to doctors who can make repairs in minutes in situations that would previously proved fatal.

When that kind of technology inevitably gets cheap — when our pens, cars, toilets and everything else can see and hear us — many exciting notions become possible. You might never run out of toilet paper, for example. At the same time, you might share uncomfortably up-to-date health information with your doctor.

What could go wrong?
But anyone who's every suffered a dropped phone call, gotten bad directions from a GPS, or even had a printer jam will realize that technology lets us down as often as it lifts us up. So aren't we setting ourselves up for gadget failure hell?

No, says Johnson, for two reasons. First, stepping on the shoulders of other futuristic failures, Internet of Things entrepreneurs know they have to prioritize substance over glitz. And second, the gadgets they sell must have an old-fashioned backup system.

"You must solve a real problem for people," he said. "We have to make sure our products and services aren't just gizmos that will shortly outgrow the gee-whiz factor. We have to have a positive impact on people's lives, making them simpler and more relaxed."

One such gadget, Johnson hopes, is the August Smart Lock — making it is his day job. The front door lock recognizes who is approaching your home and lets you open the door on command. No need to give the dog walker a spare key; Smart Lock users can grant access to certain people at certain times, even during emergencies.

"It lets you rethink what it means to give access to your home," he said.

Smart Lock has a second important feature: If the power goes out, the homeowner can use an old-fashioned key to get in. For the Internet of Things to work, there must be a plan B when it doesn't work, Johnson says. Anyone stuck in a car with a dead battery and electric windows can appreciate that.

 August Smart Lock installation diagram
The August Smart Lock, which installs over a standard deadbolt, lets you unlock your door over the Internet.

Big Brother
Potentially comical failures — what if your toilet paper sensor battery goes dead? — are not the biggest potential obstacle for the Internet of Things, however.

The NSA is.

If you are even the slightest bit worried about the federal government reading your email, how concerned will you be that it could create a database of every bowel movement? Far fetched? Imagine what the National Institute of Health could do with such data.

Every one of these computer things will collect data that could end up in the hands of law enforcement, marketing companies, or even hackers, and at the moment, there is little to stop that. This worries Kevin Mahaffey, who runs mobile security company Lookout Inc.

"There are two possible ways this works. A world where everything you do is surveilled, and everything is potentially hacked by someone,” Mahaffey said. "But the alternative way is a world where you as an individual can control this data. And that's a pretty exciting world, a world where you can have the benefit of the technology, but not some Orwellian dystopia, where even in your own home you aren’t safe from the Internet-connected pen."

One privacy nightmare — the reselling of bathroom data to drug companies, an insulin pump hacker attack, or a law enforcement incident involving home automation or monitoring — could derail the Internet of Things for years, Mahaffey warns.

Johnson acknowledges this, but he believes companies in his space can rise to the challenge of balancing convenience with privacy.

“All the Internet of Things companies, we're capturing a lot of data about users,” Johnson said. Government regulations and industry policies should restrict usage of the data, but communication with consumers will also be key. “We need to be very cognizant of the sensitivity of that data and how we make users aware of how this data can be used … It's important they understand what’s going on.”

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