Is IoT Smart House technology ignoring the human factor?

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Is IoT Smart House technology ignoring the human factor?

To be perfectly honest, I let some technical innovations pass me by. Not because I’m a technophobe or anything like that, it’s simply because sometimes I fail to see why a particular technology is necessary. Unfortunately, one technical innovation that falls firmly into this category is Internet of Things (IoT) or, in particular, IoT Smart House devices. However, having said that, I freely admit that IoT is finding useful and niche applications in areas such as health, infrastructure and energy monitoring but, equally, there are some worrying applications appearing on the horizon which could have serious operational and data privacy consequences. These include such eccentricities as refrigerators controlling consumer purchases via data exchanges with retail outlets.

Experts in the field and advisors are currently predicting that between 20 and 30 billion IoT devices will be wirelessly connected by 2020 but, I do have to ask, will all of these devices produce the benefits that are being predicted – especially for the end-user in terms of delivering value and cost savings – and will their adoption, particularly in the home, be constructive or will they be the cause of untold chaos and distress? As is often the case, just as you have satisfied yourself (more positively than of late I have to stress) that perhaps many of these benefits will be forthcoming, something reaches out, grabs you securely by the scruff of the neck, turns your world of thoughts topsy-turvy and compels you to think again and take another, more in-depth look at the subject. That is exactly the situation that transpired when I happened to notice a blog article by Dr. Paul Chen, Senior Director of Product Management, Wind River, that had been tweeted by the NDBS admin team; an article which set out to explain “why security in the Internet of Things is different from cybersecurity.

Before I continue, I wish to openly state that I am not disagreeing with anything that Dr, Chen has written nor am I wishing to slight his good name in any way. In fact, I’m not going to comment directly about his article. All I am going to do is use one aspect of his text to emphasise the point that, perhaps, in addition to there being a need, as Dr. Chen correctly suggests, to properly address security issues before broad adoption of IoT can take place, there is also a need for those developing the technology to take a closer look at how easily the technology can be adopted and supported by those who do not have the benefit of a technical background, i.e. the average person in the street. Additionally, they need to careful consider the wider implications, such as expense, associated with its implementation and, finally, as I hinted at the beginning of this article, people need to consider whether the technology is absolutely necessary in all cases. Before it is thrust upon us, we should all take the time to assess whether much of it is pure gimmickry, aimed at keeping manufacturers in business, or whether it has any real, long term practical use.

While reading Dr. Chen’s article, one IoT application in particular caused me to do a double take: IoT light-bulbs. Now, the thought of having a security issue with such an innocuous object as a light-bulb, does take some getting used to but, yes, in the Digital Age light-bulb security is something that needs to be considered and addressed. A number of manufacturers are already marketing fixed white and variable hue, dimmable LED light-bulbs for the home market and, judging by their specifications, they will provide the owner with hours of fun and enjoyment and provide them with a means of greatly improving their home security – all handled remotely via an IoT Hub and/or a smartphone, tablet, desktop and, in one instance, a smartwatch. Unfortunately, this all comes at an accumulative price that is significantly higher than would be expected when installing near-equivalent low-tech products.

So where does the security issue come into all this? Time will ultimately tell but, if you are able to control your light-bulbs, and other IoT devices for that matter, remotely, then unless security of access has been carefully implemented, it is likely that someone else, hacker or not, will also be able to control your device(s) – especially when the technology becomes more widely accessible and embraced. And here lies the crux of the matter: even if manufacturers implement quality security solutions within their products, will the purchaser have the wherewithal, or the inclination, to use it?

If we take standard wireless routers as a comparative example, it is common knowledge that devices are frequently purchased, plugged in and switched on with their security features left unconfigured. As many are aware, this allows free, or easy access, not only to the router itself but to all the router’s inter-connected devices. Likewise, if we examine how the average person manages, or doesn’t manage for that matter, their smartphone or tablet, we can easily predict the consequences if an unprotected device is lost or stolen. Not everyone activates the basic password or pin code protection that is usually available in these devices yet, at the same time, the owner is quite content to leave their applications (email, Twitter, Facebook etc.) running in the background without there being any need to provide additional authentication – a situation which is often exacerbated by the thoughtless way in which modern software is developed and installed.

Now place these examples into a situation where an entire home is being managed and controlled by IoT devices and the owner isn’t anywhere near conversant with, or doesn’t wish do be conversant with, its operation and background management requirements. It doesn’t take much imagine the chaos that would ensue. Will it result in light-bulbs glowing at the wrong time of day, a kettle working hard to boil non-existent water (unless the kettle has an IoT water sensor installed), a refrigerator placing unwanted orders with a home-delivery service simply because the house-holder forgot to program it with their family’s holiday details or devices being switched on and off randomly because next door just happens to have a similar installation – and they inadvertently hooked into your network. And what happens if the mains power fails or someone forgets their smartphone pin code – as happened to one of my friends recently? Will we all have to have secondary power and control systems available? But, more importantly, what will happen when a consumer of IoT products is no longer capable of managing the environment through ill-health? Will they have to purchase remote management services for their own home, move to a non-IoT environment (if that still exists) or one where they no longer have to worry about such trivialities?

The main drives for new technology are usually seen as being safety, security, efficiency and an easier way of life but, in reality, is that the outcome that is going to be received? Yes, advancing technology often brings with it major advantages but, all too often, it also has its hidden or unforeseen drawbacks – especially when that technology has to interact with your everyday, unsuspecting human. Imagine the upset that would emanate from the situation where someone travels abroad on holiday only to find that, while sunning themselves on the beach and attempting to check that their Smart House is ticking over nicely, their smartphone contract doesn’t support roaming data connections. Or think about the upheaval that would occur when some of this IoT technology starts to go wrong. Would the consumer spend some of the accumulative time they have saved themselves by using these devices to investigating the problem, or would they pay a service engineer to complete that task on their behalf? And, with that thought in mind, I will leave you with one additional, paradoxical thought. All of this new technology requires power, so don’t be surprised when your IoT Smart Meter informs you that your energy consumption has increased significantly.

IoT will be hotly debated by our experts at the Nordic Digital Business Summit which takes place at the Kaapelitehdas in Helsinki on September 22nd 2016. Come along and join the discussion.

Richard CarterAuthor: Richard Carter,
writing for NDBS – 21.08.2016

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