A crock-pot that allows you to adjust its cooking time and temperature from the distance, an office chair that warms up if it senses that someone has walked into the room and is feeling cold, a flowerpot that knows which plant it is holding and when it needs water, a pet feeder that serves precisely measured portions, based on your pet’s age, weight and activity level, an egg tray that alerts you via your Smartphone when you’re running low on eggs…welcome to the Internet of Things!
It seems that companies are on a mission to connect everything that can possibly be connected. Samsung’s CEO BK Yoon announced in January that five years from now, all of Samsung’s products will be part of the Internet of Things (or IoT). Gartner, the leading technology research firm, predicts that in 2020, the IoT will encompass 25 billion devices.
But as our lives are becoming more and more digital, one cannot help but wonder if this is such a good thing. Sure, there is much to be said about the IoT’s advantages: Sensors with inbuilt facial recognition mechanisms that tell us if a stranger enters our house, will let us sleep more soundly while we’re on vacation. Heating systems that turn off automatically when we leave the house will lower our heating costs significantly. Smart fridges that compose your shopping list for us based on their content (and whether or not it’s expired) will ensure that we never run out of anything.
However, with every aspect of our life being measured and tracked by our devices, we make ourselves extremely vulnerable. When everything is connected and readily available via an app, it also becomes vulnerable to hacking attacks. Over 100,000 household devices are already hackable, a steadily growing number. At DefCon, the largest hacker convention in the U.S., hackers demonstrate every year how easily IoT devices can be manipulated.
The problem with many of these “smart” devices is that they’re really not that smart at all, at least in regards to security and privacy protection: Their encryption mechanisms are weak and they often come with out-dated software. Security issues are difficult to fix with updates; even if patches are available, the company usually has to get their consumers to install them manually, which costs effort and time. Another reason that these devices are so vulnerable is because their owners often don’t bother to change the default usernames and passwords.
Hackers attacking your devices might not seem like such a big problem if it is only your fridge sending SPAM e-mails, but as security experts have repeatedly demonstrated, these hack attacks could actually become life-threatening: Diabetics were shocked to find out that a best-selling insulin pumps can be manipulated to give fatal doses and just this week Jeep owners had to learn that their cars’ engines and breaks can be managed remotely by hackers, effectively taking over control of the vehicle. In fact, a recent investigation of the 50 top car manufacturers found their security measures to be “alarmingly inconsistent and incomplete“ and that little is currently done to prevent remote access to the vehicle.
But it is not only the control over your devices that you should worry about: A much bigger problem might be the use of the vast amount of information that they collect. When every item around you – from your toaster to your front door to your activity tracker- records what you are doing at any second, they create a database of all your habits, purchases, needs and activities. This database is stored online, where theoretically it can become accessible by anyone with the right tools and skills. There is a market for this kind of data and big companies, such as supermarkets, may use it to target their promotions and ads at you (just like Facebook and Google are already doing with your browsing data). While that may seem harmless, imagine what someone with bad intentions could do with that much knowledge about you.