The rapid advance of computer technology in recent decades has produced a vast array of intelligent machines that far outstrip the human mind in speed and capacity.
This week, our topic is the Internet of Things. What will life be like when every road you travel, every device you own, every building you enter is connected to the internet? Will these developments transform our world in ways that enrich our lives? Or will they just create more opportunities for hackers, corporations, and governments to pry into every aspect of our lives?
Now in one way the internet of things can seem like it can’t be all that big of a deal. The internet has been around for several decades. And while the internet has already affected our lives in many ways, it’s not immediately obvious that things will be all that different when we connect more things to the internet.
But in fact, we’re talking about a true sea change in the digital landscape. Start with the vast number and variety of things that will be involved in the internet of things. We’re not talking about just the usual suspects like computers, smart phones and, lately, watches. It goes way beyond that. It’s cars… refrigerators… potentially every system or appliance in every building in the world. And then there are roads, bridges, train tracks. And monitors of every sort… heart monitors, sleep monitors, baby monitors. And we’re not just talking about passively hooking them up to the internet, we’re also talking about making each of these new things on the internet smart. Soon there will be billions of interconnected smart devices, collecting and analyzing reams and reams of data, autonomously sharing it, all without any human intervention. Think of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Imagine smart bridges that constantly monitor their own state and automatically alert the transportation department when they need repair and maybe shut themselves down and spontaneously reroute traffic while they are waiting for the repair crews to arrive. It's almost as if the roadway system itself will be a living, thinking thing.
That’s the upside. But there’s a downside. And you don’t have to be a luddite to worry about the potential downside of the Internet of Things. After all, is it really so crystal clear that we should be rapidly building a world in which every device or physical structure we own, operate, or interact with is constantly collecting, analyzing, and transmitting reams and reams of data on us, without even asking for our permission? What will happen to our privacy in such a world? What will become of our security in such a world? How will we prevent the Internet of Things from becoming a hacker’s paradise?
The answer to the last question that the industry likes to give is that everything will be encrypted. One can of course worry that what can be encrypted can be de-encrypted. But insiders insist that we are in an age of nearly fool-proof encryption. You can't de-encrypt what has been encrypted without an encryption key. And today's encryption algorithms generate highly complex and random encryption keys that are all but impossible to break. Against such sophisticated encryption technology hackers don’t really stand a chance. Or so they like to say! Maybe that’s right.... maybe. But who really knows? The proof will be in the pudding. And even if encryption is as fool proof as they say, we’re still going to have governments with their already insatiable demands for back doors to deal with. What about that?
The citizen in me, the one who deeply believes in democracy, wants to say in response that the government is ultimately answerable to us, the citizens. So if we citizens don’t accept back doors, governments won’t get back doors! Besides, the corporations are on our side in this. They don’t want to give governments back doors either. Their business model in the age of the internet of things will depend on selling you not just astounding convenience, but rock rib security that they can promise cannot be broken.
The problem is that it’s not just the US government, or even democratically accountable and responsible governments that are the issue. It’s governments all over the world, from the most authoritarian and anti-democratic to the least authoritarian that want back doors. And they want them for pretty much the same reason—so called national security, especially in when there are a growing array of non-state actors who organize themselves and mobilize their constituencies via the internet. And I’m afraid that governments have a way of getting what they want, whatever their citizens may say, especially when it comes to claims of national security.
Look, I suppose we could try waging a new and vigorous fight for world-wide consumer rights in the age of the internet of things. I don't deny that such a struggle would be worth the effort, even if it proves ultimately fruitless. But then I tend to have a thing for the tragic hero, who struggles to will himself into being, against all conceivable odds. But the thought that we will both create a world-wide internet of things, that collects, stories, analyses and shares information on just about everything human beings do and that governments and bad guys will not find ways to get their grubby hands on all that data seems like, well, a pipe dream.
I don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water. We surely do want some of the many benefits that the internet of things is likely to bring. I wear a fitness tracking device everywhere I go. I want medical researchers to have access to that data—at least if it’s depersonalized and aggregated with other people’s data. Of course, my insurance company is a different thing entirely. I’m not sure that I want them to have access to that data, especially if it means that they can, say, raise my rates whenever they detect that I am slacking off. I Just don’t want to give them that much power over me.
The deeper question lurking just beneath the surface here is about who will own and control all this information. You can bet it won’t be the individual consumer! It’s much more likely to be private corporations. In a way, we have already crossed that Rubicon. Huge corporations already track just about every click we make on the current internet. And though that hasn’t caused people to completely abandon the internet, it has played an important role in the growth of the dark web that lies mostly beyond the reach of prying eyes. Which raises the possibiliy that by expanding the reach of prying eyes, by pushing traditional cyberspace out into physical space more and more, the internet of things will drive more and more people underground. Do we really want that? Bad things happen, I am told, on the dark web.
In all honesty, I doubt there’s any stopping the growth of either the internet of things or even that of the dark web. But I do think it would be good if we slowed down a bit and thought about the world we are creating before taking the full plunge into the inevitable future. So join us as we do just that—slow down and think more carefully and philosophically about the pros and cons of this new fangled internet of things that is rushing upon us like a ferocious storm.