LONDON — In October, Mikko Hypponen — the chief research officer at security firm F-Secure — gave me a stark warning: “The [internet of things] revolution is gonna happen whether you’re part of it or not.”
In the coming years, chips and digital components are going to creep into everyday objects and appliances. It promises to transform how we interact with our possessions — but also poses huge security risks, could drastically undermine privacy, and even poses a threat to the very concept of ownership.
And now it’s happening.
Manufacturers are going to put chips in absolutely everything
At the CES technology conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday, LG announced that from now on, all its premium appliances will come with Wi-Fi built into them, letting them communicate with each other and your smartphone, all “connected to the cloud.”
People have been promising that internet-connected fridges are right around the corner for years. But as virtual assistants come baked into ever-more objects, from TVs to cars, it sounds like the internet of things (IoT) is starting to arrive.
This is, Mikko Hypponen told me, inevitable. And unavoidable.
“In five years time you go and buy a toaster, it — regardless of the toaster you buy, even if there’s no IoT features — it’s still gonna be an IoT toaster. It’s still gonna call home to the manufacturer. And the reason this is gonna happen is it’s gonna be so goddamn cheap to put in one chip to have it call home, that they’re all going to do it, even if the benefits are very small.
“And the benefits will be analytics like ‘OK, how many toasters do we have in use, how quickly do people take them into use when they buy them, how much do they toast, what kind of bread do they toast, how often do our toasters catch fire, where in London do we have our customers, do we have more on the East or West or South side? We have less customers on the South side, lets advertise more on the South side.’ Things like that.”
In other words, you won’t even know that you’re buying internet-connected products — so you won’t be able to avoid it.
If you’re being optimistic, there is plenty to be excited about. A fridge that texts you when you’re out of milk! A thermostat that turns on when you’re nearly home! Updates that speed up cycles pushed straight to your washing machine!
But there’s also an awful lot of downsides.
The IoT invites marketers into the most private aspects of your life
Lets start with Hypponen’s example, because it illustrates one likely casualty of the IoT revolution: Privacy.
As chips are quietly added to your possessions, more and more of your private life (even your intimate life!) will be quantified and scrutinised by marketers and algorithms. You’ll be inviting them right into your home to scrutinise every aspect of how you live so as to better sell you products.
We saw another side to this in December 2016, in a court case where Amazon was asked by the police to hand over records from its voice-controlled Alexa virtual assistant to aid a murder investigation. (It declined.)
If you bring the internet of things into your home, it can be made to testify against you.
The web is under attack from internet-connected toasters
More serious is the question of security. Right now, the internet of things is a security nightmare. Many manufacturers are paying little heed to security concerns, meaning that their devices can easily be broken into and weaponised by hackers — transforming them into gigantic botnets to attack companies, websites, and services.
In October 2016, someone used an IoT botnet built out of security cameras, smart TVs, and similar, to launch a massive attack on an internet service provider, Dyn — knocking sites including PayPal, Twitter, and Spotify offline for many Americans.
As the IoT continues to grow, the problem may only get worse.
“The core of the problem is that when you go and buy an appliance, security isn’t a selling point,” Mikko Hypponen told me. “You go and buy a toaster or washing machine … clearly price is number one. Number two: colour. Security doesn’t even enter the discussion, which means the vendor making these things will invest the minimum amount of money possible into security.”
You own your appliances? That’s so passé
The internet of things also raises more nebulous questions about the very concept of ownership. Restrictive user agreements may try and stop you from tinkering with appliances you’ve already bought and paid for. And if your dishwasher is reliant on cloud support from the manufacturer to even turn on, do you really “own” it?
Back in early 2016, Nest, a smart-home brand owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced it was discontinuing support for Revolv — a smart-home hub built by a company it had acquired in October 2014. This didn’t just mean that the devices would no longer receive software updates — it meant they would stop working completely. They were being bricked.
The move provoked fury, and concern, from customers and observers.
“When software and hardware are intertwined, does a warranty mean you stop supporting the hardware or does it mean that the manufacturer can intentionally disable it without consequence?” Revolv customer Arlo Gilbert wrote. “[then-Nest CEO] Tony Fadell seems to believe the latter. Tony believes he has the right to reach into your home and pull the plug on your Nest products.”
He added: “Which hardware will Google choose to intentionally brick next? If they stop supporting Android will they decide that the day after warranty expires that your phone will go dark? Is your Nexus device safe? What about your Nest fire alarm? What about your Dropcam? What about your Chromecast device?”
There’s a famous phrase in the tech industry: “There is no cloud, just other people’s computers.” So when your appliances rely on the cloud to run, you’re reliant on other companies’ continued goodwill. And do you really want your washing machine to seize up after two years because the manufacturer stops supporting it?
Buckle up kiddos, this could get ugly
“The benefits don’t have to be very big for this to happen,” Mikko Hypponen said. “So the IoT revolution is gonna happen whether you’re part of it or not.”
None of this is intended to criticise one specific company — Nest, LG, or anyone else. But before you invite the internet of things into your home, think long and hard about whether you’re happy with the potential consequences. And even then, realise that in the years ahead, you might not have a choice.
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