Advocacy - Policy - Research

Internet of Things: Savior or Surveillant?

Looking back 20 years from now, who would’ve thought anything like the internet would ever exist? Days when the most convenient source of communication were landlines and the only way to socialise was to sit together and talk. But today, everything is connected through the internet. People are addicted to it, feel life without the internet is not possible, think life without the internet is a throwback to the stone age.

To make the people of Mother Earth live more efficiently, techies are crunching out the biggest tech age ever; the age of the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT will allow users to have full control over their world via the internet.

What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

IoT will make today’s advancements look like the work of tech developers from yesteryears. Glories from the past such as remote-controlled central locking, cordless phones, the microwave oven will all fade away faster than you can say grandma’s chicken salad (another throwback — from a nineties telly sensation).  IoT will be one of the most genius innovations of the new tech world.

IoT is a concept (under development) that will allow users to have full control over their world via the internet even when they are far away from their usual sphere of control. So the question is, how does IoT work?

How does IoT work?

IoT connects the appliances, gadgets and everything that runs on electricity or has potential to run on electricity via the internet through a sim card. The administrator has full control over all interconnected appliances. The simplest example would be if you forgot to turn off the lights before you left the house. What IoT will let you do is turn off the lights at home while sitting at work, or while sitting in another country. Fascinating? Think of the simple ways it could improve life for every you and every me. A working parent dropping their child to the school could simply turn off the electric hob they left on by mistake, right from the car. The term “panic button” would take on an entirely new meaning.

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What does IoT offer the ordinary consumer?

Let’s take an example of those marketers standing in supermarkets to ask you questions or note your activity on the shelf in silence. Instead of a human, IoT will enable companies to record the activities of consumers at supermarkets via an automated system. This system will be able to record the time when someone enters a particular aisle, how long he or she stays in that aisle, the products he or she picks up from the shelf, the items that are dumped in the trolley and so on.

Moreover, IoT will let organisations keep track of inventory without having to appoint an inventory manager.

How would IoT help improve standard of life?

Imagine how it might impact health care. A tired doctor or a nurse running late could easily keep up with medicating their patients or monitoring their vitals. Patients need not stay at germ-infested hospitals for longer than necessary as their conditions could be monitored from home.

Imagine if IoT reaches the point where a heart patient can be administered any emergency drug remotely, through a tiny wearable emergency device? Life-saving might also take on an entirely new meaning.

What can IoT do for urban development and movement?

Mobility is another word for easy movement. And movement in big cities is chaotic and stressful. So how would IoT solves this problem? It allows you to plan your travel itinerary within the end destination before you even reach. Through IoT, you can book your parking, you can keep track of the city’s traffics, weather, events and then select your route. IoT may also (eventually) let you drive without actually driving —  autopilot.  This feature is already in practice in some big cities in the world.

How would IoT innovate in the manufacturing industry?

IoT inventions, also designed by big corporations, are often geared towards helping businesses improve their basic and complex functions. From on-ground marketing to inventory control to surveilling employees, IoT will play a major role in professional world.

What is the human cost of IoT?

So there is of course the loss of human employment. That inventory manager who has been taking care of stocking that supermarket or some retail business for five years will lose his or her job because the company now owns a tech system that can monitor and notify whomever it may concern to procure more, let’s say apples. All that efficiency and the tech system does not even need costly health insurance or paternity leave. People who were being paid a fairly decent salary ten years ago are already being paid half or less because their tasks are being done by systems which could very-well be considered the infancy of IoT.

What are the security and privacy risks of IoT?

On your wishlist for the new world of IoT might be some very simple things. You might wish you had an internet-enabled coffee machine at work so you could make your coffee of choice without lifting those elbows from the desk — except to carry it to said desk of course. But is this mechanically, magically made cup of coffee worth it?

With great liberty comes great danger. Think about all the data being stored on servers. Every little detail of your life not just logged but intelligently correlated to things such as marketing strategies (quite like tailored online ads on sites), government profiling, and of course to crime.

IoT will inadvertently and knowingly log when you leave the house, when you’re out of coffee (that one does sound great), how many people are at home at any given time, who secretly watches what (remember, there are no secrets on the internet, let alone IoT) and it will also possibly know how much you are fiscally worth. Combine that simple but exhaustive information with criminal intent; state policing or just joy hacking and the combination of things that can go wrong are endless.

Accept the fact that no system is perfectly programmed — once you put something on internet, it’s not going to go anywhere even if you delete it from your end. It will still be available on the server or in some cache or on metadata. Then think about it: Would you want to share your entire life with someone who wants to use it for his or her benefit? What if they get into your life? This is hardly impossibility — from hacker to lover —  since all of us have the tendency to share our lives, even if it’s a simple password share to make things convenient. Or an overshare with the barista in a public place.

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Given all this, your enemies or frenemies don’t even have to hack into your life. IoT puts everything within their easy reach — precisely a few clicks away. Is it not enough that your activities online, say on Facebook and WhatsApp, are continuously being monitored and stored on servers? Your messages are being read, your calls are being heard, and your pictures and videos are being seen. Facebook is believed to have the largest data of people on its servers. And intelligence agencies work closely with these social media platforms to identify any potential criminal.

And considering the touchy-feelyness of new gadgets, how many times have you accidentally tapped the wrong button on your smartphone? Or speed dialed your boss instead of Mickie D? For internet-connected devices, one accidental click can disable your ‘smart’ security system. And if you happen to live in Karachi, what if you get mugged on the street? Your ‘smart’ home will immediately be in the control of a criminal (don’t forget, if the internet can be on speed, then criminals will be a step ahead to make the most of what IoT will offer). Considering all the existing cyber threats and how technology can be misused, IoT allows anyone to sneak into your life and do surveillance so advanced that it makes me feel trippy.

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What challenges will IoT face?

Talking about the basic problems that come with IoT—  what about the maintenance of appliances your life will be dependent on. Assuming the customer care representatives of today will solve the issues of tomorrow, you might be told to restart your internet connection several times, do so unsuccessfully and then forward your complaint to the IT department. What if nothing happens but you still get a notification saying, “Your issue has been resolved from our end”. And your problem is still waving at you, all bright and happy. And while you end up calling the service providers for the fifth time in a row, you might end up realizing that you are paying every month for the luxury of ease you never get to use.

IoT will also mean a lot more reliance on others to fix things your life depends on. When you are living on the internet, then the internet cannot crash, your software cannot expire, your hardware cannot fail without you having a backup device and you and big companies both will not be able to wait for the next working day to get your IoT back on the internet. Consider the above mentioned idea of remotely monitoring patients and then reapply the notion of a hardware malfunction.

Are big companies actually interested in the IoT?

Nonetheless, according to International Data Corporation (IDC), the market of Internet of Things will increase from $655.8 billion in 2014 to $1.7 trillion by 2020 with Google making efforts to make Brillo, it’s new OS developed especially for IoT, the basic operating system for IoT, like it has already achieved that with Android for smartphones. And all this investment makes sense considering all the benefits and ease IoT can hypothetically providing to corporate and retail consumers chomping at the bit to buy into this new world of convenience.

How would IoT impact long-term changes in socialisation?

Let me reiterate —  who doesn’t want a refrigerator that keeps track of your eating habits and automatically sends out an order for eggs and a carton of ice cream? And as annoying as it might sound, we all want a caring coffee machine that tells us to cut down on our daily caffeine intake while it pours out a smooth espresso. And considering one of the hottest summers in recent memory, who doesn’t want to turn the AC on before coming home?

IoT is planned to be so efficient that it would make you feel stupid to be more proactive or physically active. That could be the first step for humans towards ineptitude and allows machines to take a giant leap into our lives. When machines start taking over Mother Earth, your future might well be a frame from the animated movie Wall-E where machines destroyed the earth and humans were vegetables being locomoted through the IoT, living in a fake planet.

Communication and Outreach Assistant at Bolo Bhi
Hija combines her corporate communication experience at Ogilvy & Mather with her degree in marketing and advertising to develop strategic C4D (communication for development) tools at Bolo Bhi. She helps the team in reaching out to larger audience through her marketing and communication skills for Bolo Bhi as well as Stories Beyond Borders, where she manages advocacy campaigns. She is a tea snob, team's go-to visual guide and a Game of Thrones fanatic which makes her awesome (and the whole team agrees on it). She can be reached via email at hija@bolobhi.org

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