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Is the IoT backlash finally here?

News Analysis
Feb 20, 20184 mins
Internet of ThingsSecurity

After years of worry, the long-anticipated backlash to the changes wrought by the Internet of Things may finally be arriving. That could be a good thing.

tools and a tablet forming the shape of a house/building
Credit: Thinkstock

As pretty much everyone knows, the Internet of Things (IoT) hype has been going strong for a few years now. I’ve done my part, no doubt, covering the technology extensively for the past 9 months. As vendors and users all scramble to cash in, it often seems like nothing can stop the rise IoT.

Maybe not, but there have been rumblings of a backlash to the rise of IoT for several years. Consumer and experts worry that the IoT may not easily fulfill its heavily hyped promise, or that it will turn out to be more cumbersome than anticipated, allow serious security issues, and compromise our privacy.

Others fear the technology may succeed too well, eliminating jobs and removing human decision-making from many processes in unexamined and potentially damaging ways.

As New York magazine put it early last year, “We’re building a world-size robot, and we don’t even realize it.” Worse, this IoT robot “can only be managed responsibly if we start making real choices about the interconnected world we live in.” Just as important, perhaps, “The market can’t fix this [problem] because neither the buyer nor the seller cares.”

While these rumblings have long percolated alongside the growth of the IoT, they ratcheted up earlier this month with a widely shared IoT-negative story that seemed to capture key elements of what increasing numbers of people feel about the technology these days.

A spy in the house of IoT

With support from the Mozilla Foundation, on Feb. 7, 2018, Gizmodo published The House That Spied on Me, by Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu. As of this writing, the article has garnered almost 500,000 shares and 300 comments.The basic premise is simple: Hill set up her San Francisco apartment to leverage the IoT as much as she possibly could, creating the ultimate 2018 smart home. Among other things, she connected “an Amazon Echo, my lights, my coffee maker, my baby monitor, my kid’s toys, my vacuum, my TV, my toothbrush, a photo frame, a sex toy, and even my bed.”

Mattu then monitored and tracked all the devices to see what they would reveal about Hill’s life. Not surprisingly, “There was a lot to see,” Mattu notes. Configured to be able to see only the information immediately available to Hill’s ISP, he could see a great deal of information was exposed.

Mattu explains, “When the data streams were unencrypted, which was the case every time someone watched Hulu on the Vizio smart TV, I could see exactly what was being sent. When they were encrypted, as the majority of the data turned out to be, I could see only the metadata — the volume of data being sent and to where, which is like seeing the outside of an envelope but not being able to read the letter inside. But sometimes, metadata is the message. I know, for example, when the family wakes up, because the Amazon Echo usually starts playing songs from Spotify between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.”

Worse than IoT’s security issues

While that kind of constant surveillance bothered many readers, it wasn’t Hill’s biggest problem.

“I thought this was going to be a story about privacy, but instead I was finding out how infuriating it is to live in a janky smart home,” she writes, noting that she had to download and create accounts for 14 different apps to control everything, and controlling them all via voice commands to Amazon Alexa “did not go as well as I had hoped.”

None of this should be a huge surprise to IoT users or vendors, but putting the privacy and convenience issues together in a real-world context clearly struck a chord for many readers worried about IoT excesses.

I don’t believe for a minute that the IoT backlash will actually derail the growth of the technology. But I also have little confidence that the issues raised here will get fully addressed any time soon. Instead, the IoT and its attendant backlash will continue to move forward together, solving many problems while simultaneously creating others. In fact, understanding those new problems and taking them seriously will be key to helping the IoT reach its full potential.


Fredric Paul is Editor in Chief for New Relic, Inc., and has held senior editorial positions at ReadWrite, InformationWeek, CNET, PCWorld and other publications. His opinions are his own.