The Wild West of IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) is exploding, and it’s become the new Wild West of the Internet world.

What, exactly, is the IoT? It’s the collective term used to refer to all the new smart devices that are being connected to the internet. It started with smart phones, and now has morphed into any device you can imagine: TVs, thermostats, door locks, lighting control, video cameras, doorbells, and yes, even refrigerators. The trend of smart devices has recently seen an exponential surge in popularity, fueled by our collective fascination with voice control. The most popular gifts this past holiday season included Amazon’s Echo and Dot, as well as Google Home. So if you thought you’d never have the opportunity to talk to an artificial intelligence engine in the cloud, think again. Asking a question of Siri, Alexa or Google is just a normal everyday occurrence for millions of people now.

However, the explosion in both the number of users and the number of devices has created this new Wild West environment: lots of cowboys and guns, but few sheriffs and laws. Users sometimes struggle with how to use IoT; IT folks struggle with to how to set up, integrate and manage all these devices; and the IT security world is scrambling to find a way to secure them.  

One recent article compared today’s early adoption of voice control to the old MS DOS days of computing. It’s a fair assessment because, like DOS, IoT can be a bit tricky and incredibly frustrating, but equally powerful, entertaining and useful. Integrating various IoT technologies can bring more freedom to disabled people, novelty to the home entertainment, and efficiency to our daily lives … but it’s probably still a good bet that Alexa, Siri, and Google are cursed at millions of times every day.

Much of the challenges stem from a current lack of standardization, integration and documentation, which has arisen out of manufacturers struggling to keep pace with growing consumer demand. Some of these challenges are strictly due to differing development strategies or varied interpretations of nuances of new technology; however, others are due to direct competitive stubbornness. For example, the parent company (Alphabet) that owns NEST also owns Google. The competitive nature of these companies has resulted in a lack of support or integration between their products and platforms. So as a result, you can’t ask Siri to set the temperature of your Nest thermostat without all sorts of third-party additional products. This type of incompatibility is not uncommon among IoT manufacturers. Unfortunately, consumers typically learn of these types of feuds immediately after installing their new devices.

While getting Alexa to turn your TV to the right channel can be quite frustrating, some of the other concerns are much greater and may pose significant risk. In October 2016, the world’s largest cyberattack was carried out by an army of zombie devices made up of millions of internet-connected devices. This attack effectively took down major internet services such as Twitter, Netflix, Air BnB and many others. In doing so, this attack highlighted the significant security concerns these devices introduce.

As with all new technologies, standardization, integration and security measures will naturally evolve over time; however for now, we as consumers, professionals and citizens are left struggling to wrap our arms around the practical applications, current complications and future possibilities these devices create.