Internet of things
By Charles Miller
There is a new acronym to add to the bottomless bowl of alphabet soup that makes up the world of Information Technology. IoT is short for the “Internet of Things.” In the beginning, the only things connected to computer networks were… well, computers. This is no longer the case, with more “things” being connected to the net and so we now have the Internet of Things.
What things, you ask? It might help to start at the very beginning, and that would take us to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University in the early 1980s. It should be easy for everyone to visualize the stereotypical computer nerd: male, overweight, bearded, nearsighted, and hunched over a keyboard 18 hours a day while living on potato chips and soft drinks. One day he pulls himself away from his coding long enough to trudge up three flights of stairs to the Coke machine, only to find it empty. He decides to do something about that. He cobbles together some electrical components, installs them inside the Coke machine and connects it to the building’s computer network. The next time he gets thirsty, and without having to climb three flights of stairs, (in fact without even taking hands off the keyboard) he can contact the Coke machine via the computer network and the sensors he installed to determine if there is a cold Coca-Cola in the machine.
That was the beginning of the IoT, and you can see it actually has been around for decades. That Coke machine was not a computer; it was just a dumb refrigerator, but it was connected to the same network as were the computers. As the internet expanded beyond the university computer lab to include other campuses, it became possible for someone in California to look and see if there was a cold Coke in the machine in Pennsylvania.
Today, there are unknown numbers of “things” connected to the internet. From a smart phone it is possible to turn on a Jacuzzi while driving home, or turn the lawn sprinklers on or off from halfway around the world. You can have a picture frame on your wall connected to the internet that can automatically display pictures taken by the grandkids in another city. These “things” can talk to each other as well. A dishwasher can call up the water heater to order just the right amount of hot water, or a refrigerator can be programmed to order more milk and eggs from the store.
The potential for convenience and for savings are great; however, there is reason to be concerned about moving too fast toward the IoT. Recently there were stories in the news about a Japanese-built smart toilet that performs a number of personal hygiene and energy-saving functions. Some hackers figured out how to make it give the user an unexpected squirt you know where.
Another cautionary tale is of the company, which developed a smart light bulb that could be programmed to dim and change color, as well as save energy. As other smart light bulbs were screwed in around the house, they would automatically connect to each other via wireless. The security implications were not well thought through, and letting the light bulbs talk to each other opened a window for computer hackers to breach other wireless communications on the home network… possibly online banking.
It is an unfortunate reality that security is usually an afterthought in the process of product development. It is one thing for the aforementioned picture frame suddenly to start displaying ads for porn sites, but something deadly serious to have a programming error in a movie theater ticketing system interfere with the software in somebody’s kidney dialysis machine. As more and more “things” are connected to the IoT, it will be more and more important to understand how these “things” can interact with each other.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.