One of the wonders of our age is that we can have real-time communication with people anywhere in the world there is access to the internet. Wait a minute! Actually, we had similar access a century ago after the first transatlantic telephone call was placed in 1927. The feat was accomplished using radio signals to transmit the call over the waters of the Atlantic from New York to London.
Today, of course, we can transmit images and text in volumes that early teletypes could not achieve. And, we can even see and hear one or more people in a videoconference.
All the convenience and speed, however, has led to great vulnerability. It used to be moderately difficult, but not impossible for a person outside the telephone company to spy on someone’s telephone calls. However, in the age of manual switching (think: operators plugging and unplugging jacks) and even the following age of electromechanical switching (the operators are no longer needed to do the switching), it would almost certainly have been impossible logistically to spy on all of the telephone calls in the United States at once.
Today, new technologies make it relatively easy for a hacker to invade your email and other accounts if you are not scrupulously careful to observe security precautions. And, your telephone calls, emails and browsing habits are all monitored by governments—though occasionally they get caught and have to modify what they are doing.
The next phase of this supposed convenience is the Internet of Things—devices in homes and businesses connected wirelessly (and less often by wires) to a local network and through it to the internet—that can then be accessed and controlled remotely. Doorbells with cameras and home alarm systems are two prominent examples.
The fact that these devices can be controlled remotely is the problem. That means not only you, but anyone who can get on your local network is able to access these devices. Two examples are so-called “smart” garage door openers and your car’s controller area network (CAN). It turns out that smart garage door openers of a particular kind can be used to open garage doors worldwide because the doors are connected via Wi-Fi to the internet. This vulnerability also provides access to any other devices on a home or business local network. It’s as if the front door is locked, but someone leaves a side door open, making it possible for anyone to access everything in the home anyway.
As for cars, new ones have networked electrical systems. Thieves have figured out how—using the headlamp wires—to send a command to unlock the car and overcome other security measures in order to drive it away. Previously, researchers demonstrated how wireless signals could unlock millions of Volkswagen cars.
My general rule is that anything offered for sale with the word “smart” in its name should be presumed hazardous until proven otherwise.
Now here’s the thing you need to understand about the Internet of Things. It isn’t about your convenience or quality of life. In rich countries and many poor ones, too, the market for cellphones is saturated. Practically everyone who wants a cellphone already has one. They might want to upgrade to a newer phone. But there aren’t a huge number of new users coming into the market. So, what’s a wireless device manufacturer to do in order increase sales and profits? Simple, actually: Sell wirelessly connected things for our households and businesses. There are literally tens of billions of things which humans might be persuaded to connect to the internet. Cha-ching$!
Now, I know it must feel really cool to raise and lower your thermostat using your cellphone. But is it really that hard to walk over to the thermostat and do it by hand? Has this been such an inconvenience to us for lo these many years? (Come to think of it, most thermostats already allow setting different temperatures for different parts of the day and days of the week without any remote intervention.)
Do you really need a sensor in your refrigerator to tell you when you need more milk? Why not just look inside the refrigerator to see if you have any milk left?
The spurious benefits of the Internet of Things come with a internet-load of liabilities. The more devices in your home and business you connect for remote access, the more things a hacker can access and control. Do you really want someone else deciding to freeze your pipes in the winter by turning off your furnace remotely? Do you really want your smoke and carbon dioxide detectors to become hostage to such hackers?
Of course, that’s just the beginning. If a hostile nation could target the heating systems of homes and businesses across your country and shut them off, they could create havoc and tremendous damage.
We already hear on an almost daily basis about cyber intrusions and theft including ransoms to allow decryption of remotely encrypted data. Critical infrastructure such as water, food, health and power systems are in serious jeopardy. What makes us think by adding many more home and business devices as targets for cyber criminals or even cyber warfare units of foreign adversaries, we will somehow be safer? The very burglar alarm system designed to safeguard your premises could become the gateway for a cyberattack on the entire Internet of Things collection in your home or business.
Back in 2019 the vulnerability of the U.S. electrical grid so concerned U.S. senators that they passed a bill to look into creating manual cutoffs across the grid to prevent an attack from bringing down the entire system. Think about that next time you flip on the lights or walk over to your thermostat to adjust it. Maybe you should just consider leaving well enough alone.
Image: Internet of Things diagram by Wilgengebroed. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Internet_of_things_signed_by_the_author.jpg