The Politics Of The Internet Of Things

By Dominique Guinard for

The prospective scale of the Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to fill anyone looking from the outside with the technical equivalent of agoraphobia. However, from the inside, the view is very different. Looked at in detail, it is a series of intricate threads being aligned by a complex array of organizations.

As with any new technological epoch, questions around shape, ownership and regulation are starting to rise. Imagine trying to build the Internet again. It’s like that, but at a bigger scale.

The first hurdle is that of technological standards. We are at a pivotal moment in the development of the IoT. As the diversity of connected things grows, so does the potential risk from not allowing each “thing” to talk to one another.

This begins with networking standards. From ZigBee to Z-Wave, EnOcean, Bluetooth LE or SigFox and LoRa, there are simply too many competing and incompatible networking standards from which to choose. Luckily enough, things seem to be converging and consolidating.

Moreover, the already well-established alliances are regrouping. First in the indoors world, where ZigBee 3.0 is getting closer to Google’s Thread — albeit still challenged by the Bluetooth consortium, who are about to release the Bluetooth mesh standard. More interestingly, the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on IEEE 802.11ah known as HaLow. All three standards specifically target lower power requirements and better range tailored for the IoT.

Similarly, in the outdoors world, the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance (working closely with the well-established GSMA, ruling the world of mobile standards) is working on an important piece of the puzzle for the world of smart things: 5G. With increased data range, lower latency and better coverage, it is vital to handle the multitude of individual connections and will be a serious global competitor to the existing LPWAN (Low Power Wireless Area Networks), such as SigFox and LoRa.

Whilst trials are currently taking place, commercial deployment is not expected until 2020. Before this can happen, spectrum auctions must be completed; typically a government refereed scrap between technology and telecoms companies, with battle lines drawn on price. It’s important to put an early stake in the ground with regulators to ensure sufficient spectrum is available at a cost that encourages IoT to flourish, instead of being at the mercy of inflated wholesale prices.

But the challenge doesn’t stop at the network level; the data or application level is also a big part of the game. The divergence in application protocols is only being compounded as tech giants begin to make a bid to capture the space. Apple HomeKit, Google Weave and a number of other initiatives are attempting to promote their own ecosystems, each with their own commercial agendas.

Left to evolve in an unmanaged way, we’ll end up with separate disparate approaches that will inexcusably restrict the ability of the IoT to operate as an open ecosystem. This is a movie we’ve seen before.

The web has already been through this messy process, eventually standardizing itself by Darwinian principles of technology and practices of use. The web provided a simple and scalable application layer for the Internet, a set of standards that any node of the Internet could use whatever physical technology it uses to connect to the Internet.

The web is what made the Internet useful and ultimately successful. This is why a Web of Things (WoT) approach is essential. Such an approach has substantial support already. A Web Thing Model has recently been submitted to W3C, based on research done by a mixture of tech giants, startups and academic institutes. These are early tentative steps toward an open and singular vision for the IoT.

The resolution of this issue opens up the possibility of a vast collaborative network, where uniform data can optimize a wild array of existing processes. However, as data gradually becomes the most valuable asset of a slew of once inanimate objects, what does this mean for legacy companies who build the products which have had no previous data strategy?

The tech sector is comfortable with sharing and using such information, but for companies that have their grounding in making everything from light bulbs to cars, this is a new concept. Such organizations have traditionally had a much more closed operational approach, treating data like intellectual property — something to be locked away.

To change this requires a cultural shift inside any business. Whilst this is not insurmountable by any means, it brings to the fore the need to effect a change in mind-set inside the boardroom. For such a sea change to happen, it will require education, human resources and technology investment.

Security is one of the biggest barriers preventing mainstream consumer IoT adoption. A Fortinet survey found that 68 percent of global homeowners are concerned about a data breach from a connected device. And they should be: Take a quick look at Shodan, an IoT search engine that gives you instantaneous access to thousands of unsecured IoT devices, baby monitors included! In 2015, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission stated that “perceived risks to privacy and security…undermine the consumer confidence necessary for technologies to meet their full potential.”

For manufacturers to boost consumer confidence, they must be able to demonstrate that their products are secure, something that seems to have come under increasing pressure lately. The problem with security is that it is simply never achieved. Security is a constant battle against the clock, deploying patches and improvements as they come.

This clearly can be overwhelming for product manufacturers. In order to do this, relying on an established IoT platform that has implemented comprehensive and robust security methodologies and that can guide them through such a complex area is a wise move.

Consumers also share some responsibility in increasing the security of their data — by using strong passwords for product user accounts and on Internet-facing devices, like routers or smart devices; use of encryption (like WPA2) when setting up Wi-Fi networks; and installing any software updates promptly.

However, as consumer adoption of IoT rises, it is critical for manufacturers to ensure that the security of smart, connected products is at the heart of their IoT strategy. After all, the security of a smart object is only as strong as its weakest connected link.

Coupled with security, emergent issues around data privacy, sharing and usage will become something everyone will have to tackle, not just tech companies. In the data-driven world of IoT, the data that gets shared is more personal and intimate than in the current digital economy.

For example, consumers have the ability to trade though their bathroom scales protected data such as health and medical information, perhaps for a better health insurance premium. But what happens if a consumer is supposed to lose weight, and ends up gaining it instead? What control can consumers exert over access to their data, and what are the consequences?

Consumers should be empowered with granular data-sharing controls (not all-or-nothing sharing), and should be able to monetize the data they own and generate. Consumers should also have a “contract” with a product manufacturer that adjusts over time — whether actively or automatically — and that spells out the implications of either a rift in data sharing, or in situations where the data itself is unfavorable.

The onus here also lies on regulators to ensure that legal frameworks are in place to build trust into the heart of the IoT from the very beginning. The industry needs embrace this and embark on an open and honest dialogue with users from the very beginning. Informed consent will never be more important, as data and metadata from connected devices is able to build a hyper-personalized picture of individuals.

Brands would be wise to understand that the coming influx of consumer data is a potential revenue stream that must be protected and nurtured. As such, the perception of privacy and respect are tantamount for long-term engagement with customers. So much so that it is likely that product manufacturers will start changing their business models to create data-sharing incentives and perhaps even give their products away for free.

Due to its massive potential, the Internet of Things is advancing apace, driven largely by technology companies and academic institutions. However, only through wide-scale education and collaboration outside of this group, will it truly hit full stride and make our processes, resources utilization and, ultimately, our lives, better.

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