Did last week mark the end of the Internet of Things and the beginning of the Internet of Things That Can Turn Hostile If You’re Not in the Right Group? Several recent news events suggest it did.
There’s the report late last week from California-based security firm Proofpoint uncovering the first proven Internet of Things-based attack that hijacked such smart household equipment as home routers, smart TVs, and even one unsuspecting and apparently innocent refrigerator to generate spam. The attack, which took place between December 23 and January 6, generated over 750,000 “malicious email communications” and involved over 100,000 “everyday consumer gadgets.”
The Internet of Things is the name given to the emerging smartification of almost everything, using microprocessors, sensors, transceivers and computer-identifiable tags of various kinds. Industry research firm IDC projects that over 200 billion things will be connected to the Internet by 2020.
Cisco goes one step further, describing it as the Internet of Everything, to cover the intersecting services and communications networks between all that stuff. And there are plans by many, including scientist and software designer Stephen Wolfram, to embed various layers of intelligence into those Things.
Last week, Google announced it was purchasing Nest, which currently makes intelligent thermostats, but you can expect it will soon branch out to make intelligent home Things of all kinds. High-level intelligence throughout your home and, if Google’s newest dreams come true, in your glasses and in your self-driving car as well.
Some observers have suggested that one industry-level way to stem the hackability of Things is for Thing-makers to make them rigidly application-specific, able to run only a given set of apps and accept updates only from their maker. But there are no standards or agreements for that, and Wolfram, Google, and others show that the momentum in the age of cheap computing is to add general intelligence, not limit it. How does a consumer know if the refrigerator they’re buying is too smart to be safe?
You could also envision that your network provider, or a third party provider, filters all incoming traffic to your houseware, as it may be known, including your car, glasses, wristwatch, smart sneakers, security cameras, stove, door locks, electronic toys, and transmitting credit cards. But how do you know what kind of filtering they should provide? What questions should you ask?
Last week also brought us the decision by a federal court to throw out a central part of Net Neutrality and open the door to a radically new phase of the Net, when connectivity providers could offer better treatment to data from one company over another. This has been interpreted as meaning preferential treatment for certain content providers, but it could also mean better security filtering in higher tiers.
All of which raises the possibility, in the not-too-distant future, that those who can afford better Net protection for every Thing they own, and who have the knowledge, time, and foresight to ask the right questions of Thing sellers, will live in homes and work in offices better protected against the raging storm of hackers. Oh, yes, and against the NSA.
Last summer, ABC News reported on a Houston couple who heard a strange man’s cursing and lewd remarks coming from their two-year-old’s baby monitor. It had been hacked. Which Verizon tiered service or which baby monitor is going to better protect my sleeping child?
Money is part of it, but not the only part, because better informed consumers will know what questions to ask and what answers to accept. Think of the U.S. tax system: Those who pay good accountants, or can figure out the complexities themselves, pay lower taxes.
And, in the age of the Internet of Things, when every piece of equipment is vulnerable and the Net works better for those who pay for it, pricing and knowledge may well determine if most of the Things you own are actually all yours.