The IoT: Helpful or Harmful?


The Internet of Things is a global infrastructure that enables advanced services by interconnecting things using existing and evolving information and communication technologies. (To clarify—the Internet of Things, or IoT for short, applies to devices that monitor behavior like Fitbit. Phones, laptops, tablets, even though they use Wifi, do not count as a part of that global infrastructure, the IoT.) More and more people are adopting these technologies. This increase is occurring among large and small businesses, and even in our own domestic lives. There are both a lot of drawbacks and positives associated with interconnected technologies, and there is a national debate about how much we should adopt them as a result.

The side of the debate favoring the IoT focuses on the theme of efficiency being applied to many different facets of life. One of the most significant applications can be seen in the healthcare world. The IoT can be used in pacemakers and insulin pumps to feed direct data to your doctor. This has two important impacts. First, with more remote sensing, fewer patient visits to hospitals are necessary. The CDC has already quantified that there is about a 50% chance of contracting a disease just by walking into a hospital. Fewer hospital visits means fewer unnecessary infections. Second, hospital error is the sixth leading cause of preventable death in the nation. Through the IoT’s process known as meta-analyzing, which enables the review of large amounts of data, errors can be isolated and solved, resulting in a decrease in the number of lives lost to healthcare error.

Another great use of the IoT is in agriculture. The IoT operates on a large scale in agriculture by enabling the strategic placing of sensors throughout the ground. These sensors can detect conditions like too much or not enough water, fertilizer needs, etc. From there, a work order is sent out to the farmer regarding the needs of that section of the field. The targeted support to particular areas of the field lessens the need to do mass watering, which is wasteful. Saving water by any means available is really important because we are running out of it, and this is especially critical in agriculture, one of the most water-dependent industries.

With all these great benefits come potentially dire consequences.

Imagine an empty pool. Fill it with water. And now you have a great swimming pool. However, spill some red food coloring in the pool and boom. The pool is red. Who wants to swim in that disgusting red pool?

This is what can happen with the IoT. The whole network is connected. That pacemaker from the healthcare example is connected to the internet and transmits the patient’s data to the physician’s computer. If even one part along this chain is hacked or malfunctions, boom. The whole network is down. We all want great swimming pools, but it is just not all that hard to hack into IoT devices. For instance, someone could hack into your computer, trace your insulin pump to you, and remotely shut it off. Boom. Someone can remotely kill you through the IoT. Obviously this is an exaggeration, but it’s not impossible. People have already been able to stop self-driving cars by hacking the IoT. People can even hack into your new Amazon Alexa, an IoT device, then use it to access your TV, your Netflix account connected to your TV, your credit card connected to your Netflix account, and so on. Boom. Credit card gone. We need to try to stop hacking before accessing any benefits from the IoT technologies.

The second potential harm has already been experienced as part of America’s shady past. In the pool analogy above, the red food coloring was caused by a random hacker. But what if that red dot was caused by a different type of hacker, the most powerful of all time, the US government? As we have already seen with the NSA, the government is not afraid of using the Internet (not IoT) to monitor its citizens. The IoT adds a new layer of surveillance capabilities. The National Director of Intelligence has already stated that any government is likely to conduct mass surveillance of its citizens through the IoT. Samsung has even announced to consumers that they should not discuss private matters near their technology. Some people are totally OK with their government watching over them, others are not. Regardless, safeguards from government surveillance need to be addressed to a greater extent before complete implementation of the IoT.

On the whole, the IoT is great. The amazing potential for saving lives is there. However, the potential harm resulting from widespread use is too great at this point in time. The real question lies with whether or not the prevalence of hacking and government spying can be addressed quickly so that the benefits and innovation of the IoT can really get rolling.

Photo credit: abdullah.khan2012


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