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At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2014, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, said that the IoT would lead to greater efficiency, better decision making and contribute over 19 trillion dollars to the global economy.At element14, we were already ahead of the curve.  Our first webinar referencing the Internet of Things occurred in 2012. In late 2013, we launched the "Smarter Life" design competition, whose main emphasis was to advance the development of smarter, networked appliances.  We followed this up with the "Forget Me Not" challengewhich utilised the Raspberry Pi B Plus, EnOcean sensors and the Eclipse Foundation's Internet of Things platform. The purpose of this competition was to inspire applications which addressed gaps in human memory.  The projects that were created were breathtakingly innovative and also proved how accessible the Internet of Things has become.  In many ways, it was rather like witnessing the first powered flights: the Internet of Things proved not only that it could get off the ground: it could also soar.

However, progress rarely travels in a straight line: 2014 also brought up significant questions which need to be addressed. For example, by connecting every corner of our lives up to the internet, are we allowing in new dangers?

 

At the Electronica trade fair in November 2014, an engineer warned me about the possibilities of "digital death": a hacker could actually bring about someone's demise by infiltrating their internet connected device unless companies get serious about IoT security. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which a group of malicious hackers could get into internet-connected medical devices, or tamper with the operation of an internet-connected vehicle. However, the risk of malicious hacking also extends to less intrusive IoT devices.
The winner of the Smarter Life competition, Douglas Wong, created a Smart Thermostat via his Henrietta Project.  Douglas is from Canada; should such a thermostat in Canada be hacked and disabled in the winter, it's easy to see how this could be a problem.

 

The community choice winner for the Forget Me Not Challenge, Mark Beckett, created a system that allows one to keep track of the elderly.  The intent of the application is entirely benign: it is there to enhance carers' ability to keep track of those in their charge.  However, such a system could just as easily be used to find out when a vulnerable person is at their weakest.

 

Even an IoT Cat Feeder could be used to malevolent ends.  Frederick Vandenbosch's IoT Cat Feeder won the Forget Me Not challenge: as well as helping to ensure one's pets are happy and healthy, it incorporates sensors which can detect room temperature.  As Frederick told me, a canny thief could hack in and use room temperature as an indicator if someone is at home.

 

In short, the Internet of Things could create a world of criminal opportunity.

 

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What to do?

 

The history of powered flight provides a useful precedent. Initially it was seen as the sole province of daredevils: in 1910, the Daily Mail newspaper sponsored a flight from London to Manchester.  The winner received a £10,000 prize, an astronomical sum if translated to today's money. The competitors flew in open top aircraft and they flew at night; it was an incredibly risky endeavor.  Now a flight from London to Manchester, if anything, is subject to the tedium of baggage carousels and queues: thanks to enclosed, pressurised aircraft, modern navigation instruments and professional maintenance and pilots, it is routine for thousands of people to make this journey every day. The early pioneers were important: they stretched out the frontiers of what was possible. Those who followed consolidated the gains.

 

Similarly, in 2014, engineers on element14 and elsewhere showed that the Internet of Things can indeed fly: 2015 will perhaps be more about consolidating the gains, tightening security and ensuring that safety becomes part of designing any IoT application. Having said this, there is no such thing as perfect security, just as no lock can fully escape being picked.

 

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