Let me tell you something you already know: There are a lot of bad people out there.
Like viruses, bad people will exploit any opportunity and wave off any pangs of conscience if they smell a victim. And if there’s one thing the Internet of Things (IoT) can supply in abundance, it’s opportunity and victims.
Computers in homes and businesses started being hacked about ten minutes after the first commercial Internet connection went live. The type of person who thinks nothing of doing $10,000 damage to a car to steal a $200 radio won’t care if he destroys a lifetime of data in order to extort forty bucks from an unsuspecting computer user. Worse yet, some of these criminals aren’t even after anything material; they cause massive damage just for fun and bragging rights.
Over the years, an entire industry has arisen to combat these parasites, and it’s done a pretty good job, at least for those of us paying attention: If we follow a few simple rules, use good security software, are diligent about backups and don’t talk to strangers on the phone, we’ve got a good chance of not getting whacked. (We’re still going to get spammed, but, handled properly, spam is an annoyance, not a menace.)
Just as we thought we were starting to gain the upper hand, though, along comes the IoT. Compared to the relative orderliness of the personal computer world, the IoT is a lawless frontier of cowboys, rustlers, and land grabbers sitting atop history’s largest gold mine.
Why? First of all, the IoT is everywhere. It’s in our homes, in our cars, and on our bodies. If we don’t let things talk to other things, the virtues of the IoT can’t be enjoyed. And when everything is talking to everything else, they may “say” things we don’t like or even know about. It’s an irresistible target for cyber criminals, who dream up new methods of attack as fast as new devices, ecosystems, and protection software are released to the market. An extensive study announced at a security conference on a few months ago by the Eurecom research centers in France and Germany found significant vulnerabilities in devices from a quarter of the 54 manufacturers they tested.
We already know baby monitors can be used to steal private information. Home systems can be hacked through smart thermostats. Connected automobiles can be made to stop dead on the freeway by remote control. It’s only a matter of time before someone figures out how to read what you’re typing by tapping into your smart watch…if they haven’t already. And we don’t even want to think about the consequence of hacking medical devices.
The people who sell us home automation devices aren’t telling us much about all of that. What vendor wants to scare his customers?
As consumers of these smart devices, we want to plug things in and have them start running (within an hour, or at most a day, according to recent research I was involved in). We want everything talking to everything else, unfettered by firewalls, complex passwords, and three-factor authentication.
We can’t have it both ways, and the way we resolve the dilemma isn’t always in our own best interest. As comic-strip character Pogo put it many years ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
As ever, what we really want is to be protected from ourselves. Fortunately, the industry is taking note and is acting. There’s nothing altruistic about it: Unless something is done, the runaway train that is the IoT is in danger of getting derailed. (Or even worse, regulated. But more on that another day.)
[Next week in Part Two: The IoT Security Opportunity]
Lee Gruenfeld is a Principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Support.com, Senior Vice President and General Manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a Partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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