By Jack Shafer
Jan 10 Novelist Philip K. Dick anticipated by
four decades the Internet of Things, a phenomenon touted loudly
by the press from this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las
Vegas. Internet-aware automobiles, toothbrushes, mattresses,
infant monitors, fitness trackers, pet collars, tennis rackets,
lightbulbs, toilets, bathroom scales, "wearable" tech,
tricorder-like medical sensors, and more have arrived or are on
Dick, ever the dystopian, recognized that one man's
technological boon is inevitably another's bane, and expressed
this view most bleakly in his Ubik. The novel, published in 1969
but set in the early 1990s, posits a world populated with nearly
sentient appliances. Joe Chip, the novel's protagonist, is so
broke he's in arrears with the robots that clean his apartment,
and they have reported him to a credit agency as a deadbeat. One
morning, upon attempting to exit his apartment, the smartdoor
blocked him, saying "Five cents, please."
"I'll pay you tomorrow," Chip promised after searching his
The door isn't having it, and refused to open. "What I pay
you," Chip said, "is in the nature of a gratuity; I don't have
to pay you."
"I think otherwise," the door said. "Look in the purchase
contract you signed." Chip did as told, retrieving the contract
and reading it.
"You discover I'm right," said the door in a smug voice.
Using a knife as a screwdriver, Chip started to unscrew the
"I'll sue you," the door said as the first screw fell out.
"I've never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live
through it," Chip responded.
Nobody has been sued by a sassy, Ubik-esque smartdoor - yet.
But it's not completely irrational to worry that somewhere in
the terms of service agreements that come with the new-age
lightbulbs, dog collars, and who-knows-what-next entering the
market, we'll find boilerplate legal language that will give our
appliances standing in court to sue us for non-payment,
trespassing, and unscrewing. As more and more everyday objects
become "aware" and report the position and status of not just
things but people, our world might start converging with the one
imagined in Dick's Ubik.
What troubles people about the Internet of Things (or IoT,
it's called) is not the nagging and monitoring the devices
generate, but control over the data collected. Computer data is
used against you in ways you never anticipated. A piece in
yesterday's Wall Street Journal gives a current example: Lending
companies now scrape Facebook, Twitter, and other social media
sites to establish individuals' creditworthiness and identity,
something few users thought about when posting pictures and
narratives about themselves. As IoT devices roll out, they'll
become new self-surveillance devices like our phones and email,
creating "records" that if not properly secured will be scrapped
by Big Business. Business isn't the only potential heavy in the
IoT future. Under the records provision of the Patriot Act, the
U.S. government already collects our telephone and email
metadata. Surely the Patriot Act could be used to hoover up IoT
Setting privacy worries aside for security worries, IoT
devices will give criminals new ways to hack our identities,
defraud us, steal our medical data, and break into our homes and
businesses unless made secure. Other horror scenarios abound:
"Financial systems, power grids, sewage systems, oil and natural
gas pipelines communications" could be compromised, and malware
could be inserted on low-level devices to cause mayhem in
upstream targets, as Stuxnet did with Iran's centrifuges. (For
more privacy and security fretting, see the transcript from the
recent Federal Trade Commission "workshop" on the IoT.)
Of course, the IoT isn't the only or even the best path to
personal data. As Bruce Schneier wrote this week, most of the
home routers that Internet users rely on can be easily breached,
and all your data hijacked, destroyed or altered. So for the
time being, we should probably be more paranoid about the
integrity of the loading docks that move our most sensitive
personal and financial data - routers, smartphones, and
computers - than we are about newly enlightened toothbrushes,
capable of blabbing only our incisor secrets.
Unlike Philip K. Dick, I'm not so afraid of the IoT future.
The IoT devices ballyhooed at CES are trivial compared to what
we will soon see coming out of the silicon foundries. So many
life-improving economic efficiencies can be potentially captured
- from energy consumption to healthcare - by IoT sensors
chatting over the Internet that we'd be mad to avoid them. The
key to integrating IoT devices in our culture is in consumers
demanding 1) secure devices, which start with computers,
routers, government-collection-by-warrant only and 2) ownership
of the data. For too long, too many Internet consumers have
wanted to have it both ways: We've expected free - i.e.,
advertising-supported - services (email, calendars, smartphone
apps, navigation, cloud storage, news, information and
entertainment), but been shocked when the companies supplying
the free goods built and sold dossiers on us.
The IoT revolution provides a mental pause that we should
use to rethink what we want from the Internet. If we expect
privacy and security from the IoT, surely we should expect the
same from the regular Internet, which means renegotiating our
email, storage, and navigation accounts to put a premium on
privacy and security. Privacy and security can't be free. In
real life and on the Internet, you get what you pay for.
As for Ubik's Joe Chip, did he ever escape his apartment?
Yes. Luckily, a visitor arrived and dropped a coin in the slot
on the other side of the smartdoor.