Updated: Jul 13
What is the Internet of Things and what can it do for us?
The 2010s were dominated by talk of the Internet of Things (IoT). We expected to have fully-connected houses, with thermostats that talked to one another, self-ordering refrigerators and beds that called the doctor if we didn’t get up for a few days. No longer would we separate our connected time from real-life time, the two would merge into one another as more and more of our life became connected.
On the surface, it would appear that we are still quite far from this scenario. While many homes now have their TVs and music streaming services connected to the internet and controlled by virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, and we can control heating or lighting from afar via an app, most applications still require human intervention in order to operate, and so a fully connected home is still some way from realization.
IoT devices operate via sensors that collect data about their surroundings and use that information to make decisions using AI. Data is uploaded to a cloud via the internet and shared with other devices on the network to create a global picture of the surroundings. The idea is that our life is managed by our devices without us having to do anything. Small decisions are taken out of our hands to give us more free time and enhance our life experience.
At least, that was the premise. In fact, real-world applications of this technology have found more traction in the world of manufacturing and infrastructure.
The Internet of Things has made progress in the field of manufacturing, where companies have been able to apply digital transformation techniques to improve efficiency. At the beginning of 2020 and the start of the coronavirus pandemic which hit China early on, South Korea saw its supply chain hit severely. The country's large manufacturers were able to weather the storm due to superior supply chain management practices, aided by digitally connected systems.
City infrastructure is another area that has seen huge benefits from the implementation of the Internet of Things. From energy resources to traffic circulation, the technology has been applied across a diverse series of systems, depending on the specific needs and characteristics of the city. One example is Singapore’s “Smart Mobility 2030” plan, which aims to reduce the use of public transport, improve traffic circulation, and improve the travel experience for its millions of residents by using data collection, analytics and connected systems. A relatively small and contained transport infrastructure and a populace already used to relying on public transport makes Singapore the perfect place to road test this type of initiative. In Barcelona, cross-city connectivity has brought a number of cost-saving and life-enhancing initiatives to its residents; these include energy-saving sensors used in public lighting and irrigation systems, smart parking assistants, and just-in-time waste management. The city wisely leveraged the fiber optics cables which ran under the city, providing high-speed internet throughout the metropolitan area.
What risks come with increased connectivity?
But what dangers does such a high level of connectivity imply for a city? Like any other device connected to the internet, city systems are at risk of being hacked. The recent cyber attack on US federal agencies highlighted the potential risk of such attacks. While this time, the aim seemed to be to highlight vulnerabilities and show the capabilities of the hackers - akin to sending a missile into the sea to demonstrate its reach - if actors wanted to bring down systems and cause chaos, the opportunity would certainly be there and the risk far increased the more connected a city was.
Attacking infrastructure using cyberattacks is certainly not unprecedented, just ask Ukraine. In 2015, hackers took down the power grid for the country’s 40 million residents. Although the outage only lasted 6 hours, it caused lasting damage which has still not been fully repaired. In 2017, the country was hit again. This time banks were the most severely affected and residents were suddenly unable to take money from ATMs or use credit cards to buy food. Ukraine is not a country with a high level of connectivity and it was their manual systems that allowed them to get back up and running with relative ease. If a similar attack took place in the US or parts of Western Europe, it is likely that it would be much more severe and much more difficult to get everything back up. A city like Singapore would grind to a halt; with systems unable to talk to one another, buses wouldn’t be able to run, taxis wouldn’t know where to go and residents wouldn’t be able to access the app they’ve been using as their one means of accessing transportation and city systems. Barcelona would be without water, electricity and its public transportation system. In fact, most modern cities are heavily reliant on the internet and automated systems to run.
Dan Geer, computer security analyst and risk management specialist highlights the problems in having connected systems, pointing to a lack of resilience in such systems. At the Security of Things Forum on May 7, 2014, he said
the Internet of Things, which is to say the appearance of network connected microcontrollers in seemingly every device, should raise hackles on every neck.
He went on to say
Interdependence within society today is centered on the Internet beyond all other dependencies excepting climate.
And climate, of course, is not able to be manipulated by a small group of malicious actors to cause chaos in minutes.
Hospitals and other medical services are one such service which rely on the Internet. Ransomware attacks on medical systems have caused chaos this year in the US, Germany and Spain. Attacks have targeted systems used to document patient notes, or to divert emergency services, testing systems which are already at full stretch. Hackers are easily able to hold administrations to ransom, knowing they have no backup and that they are completely helpless without these systems.
Ransomware attacks are one thing - their actors generally do not want to break things, merely to show that they can - but hackers can also access these systems to take control of them. As cars increasingly rely on software and digital mechanisms, this also opens them to hacking attempts. Car thieves now learn code-breaking rather than lock-breaking and can drive vehicles away without going near them. More violent crimes are made possible with connected devices; Dick Cheney’s physician had to disconnect the wifi from his patient’s pacemaker for fear it could be hacked and used to assassinate him.
It is not only physical goods at risk of theft. As systems become more interconnected, there is more risk that our data can be accessed via different channels. Most consumers are now aware that their home assistant is listening to them all of the time and mostly seem ambivalent about it if sales are anything to go by (at the beginning of 2019 Amazon had already hit 100 million sales of their Alexa device), but perhaps not all are aware of the extent of the personal data they are sharing and the number of connected devices it is being shared with. Some slips in security have highlighted the fact that Amazon are perhaps not protecting user data quite as well as they should. The connectivity benefits of being able to access multiple systems through one device also allows bad actors to access all those same systems through one device. If you have bought and paid for something through Alexa by entering bank details via voice command, these details would be available to hackers.
Can Blockchain address security concerns in the Internet of Things?
It may appear that the key objectives of the Internet of Things - namely increased convenience and efficiency through centralized systems - are incompatible with data security. Surely one must be sacrificed in the name of the other?
So far, IoT manufacturers have certainly prioritized convenience over security, rushing out new devices without first making sure they are secure. According to the 2020 Unit 42 IoT Threat Report, 98% of IoT device traffic is unencrypted, exposing confidential and personal data to cyber-attacks. It also estimates that 57% of IoT devices are vulnerable to medium-severity attacks. Consumers are also willing to overlook security concerns, having been primed for handing over data for convenience in many forms since the dawn of Web 2.0.
Even if the majority of manufacturers did start prioritizing security, it would only take one weak link in the chain to exploit the system. IoT is an inherently shared ecosystem and operating model, yet there are no uniform standards to govern it.
Currently, IoT uses a centralized networking model where devices use a single gateway to transfer data and connect through a cloud server. This model has been sufficient so far, but won’t permit scaling to accommodate the increasing number of IoT devices and the volume of data they share due to the high cost and energy implications. In addition, having one single gateway is the key vulnerability to hacking attempts, allowing bad actors to gain access to the whole IoT network via one device.
In contrast, Blockchain works on a decentralized ledger system, where data is stored on various nodes all over the world, eliminating that single potential point of failure. Data must be approved and verified by the nodes before it can be added to the network, preventing any changes without consent from all participants. This peer-to-peer approach can be used to protect blockchain transactions from hackers trying to intercept data travelling from one device to another.
Blockchain technology, principally used for financial transactions, protects data stored on the ledger with advanced encryption and security. Personal data stored on the blockchain would be much safer than it is now, vulnerable to the weakest security link on the network.
Potential integration of Blockchain and IoT
Chronicled laboratories are already in the process of testing IoT and Blockchain integrations on a range of devices. They have even created an open source toolkit that allows anyone to assign a secure digital identity to a physical object via an encrypted chip and linking it to a blockchain record to see how this works.
CEO Ryan Orr described the project as follows
The Chronicled Blockchain & IoT Laboratory is meant to serve as a showcase for new frontiers at the intersection of the IoT and Blockchain industries.
With IoT growth most noticeable in manufacturing industries and infrastructure systems, it would make sense to integrate blockchain technology here first. The security benefits would be key in preventing the kind of mass breaches seen recently across the globe, and protecting systems necessary for the ongoing functioning of society.
One of Chorinicled’s projects has already run a project focussed on assessing the quality levels of drugs to ensure that they do not fail during the supply process, which could impact their efficacy when taken by the patient, but the potential applications are many and diverse.
If we look at the different ways blockchain technology could be applied to IoT devices, we might identify three main areas; registry, monetization and coordination. Namely, it could provide an immutable way to manage the identity of devices, along with the transactions and interactions between them. Applied effectively, this could address operational issues and skepticism towards adoption. It could encourage organizations to collaborate and share their information and expertise, creating secure ecosystems that could fully unlock IoT potential. Personal health data connected to medical systems would make treatment much more effective and would not be open to exploitation by governments or insurance companies. If integrated effectively, more than an Internet of Things, we could be looking at an Internet of Decentralized, Autonomous Things.
Integrating Blockchain technology into IoT devices undeniably has its challenges. One of the main roadblocks on the way to mass adoption is paradoxically linked to one of the potential advantages of blockchain in that every action on the network has to be verified by other network participants. As connectivity increases and the number of devices on the same network grows, it can be difficult to receive consent from all of them, creating a bottleneck and compromising the efficiency of such inter-connectivity.
Another blocker involves the power involved to maintain a blockchain network. Such computing power is shared across the globe to maintain the financial ledgers for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Applied to the IoT connected devices in a smart home, it is unlikely that a single household would have the computing power required to maintain a blockchain.
On top of these concerns, we cannot discount security concerns completely. Whilst blockchain indeed addresses a number of issues and vulnerabilities present in IoT, it still presents security challenges in order to protect and authenticate a growing number of connected devices.
Ways to move things forward
The decentralization of the Internet of Things will not happen overnight. A combination of efforts need to take place driven by a desire for increased efficiencies and cost savings in industry, the need for more robust personal security, and the protection from vicious attacks on key public infrastructure.
Perhaps our focus on “cool” features such as self-ordering refrigerators has distracted us from the true potential of IoT. The recent coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for secure but interconnected systems and information sharing. IoT has been used to ensure the continued functioning of key services under an increasing amount of strain during the pandemic and has been key in track and trace systems. IoT has also been deployed in the safe storage and of distribution of the COVID 19 vaccine. Information sharing and transparency has been key to identifying, tracking and treating the virus.
However, unprecedented levels of surveillance and data sharing have caused concern amongst the general population, driven mainly by a lack of trust in government. As we have seen, such security and privacy concerns could be addressed using the decentralized technology of blockchain. As we enter 2021, new challenges await; how to vaccinate the population amidst a hyper-contagious second strain of the virus? If the Internet of Things is to come to the rescue, it may need the support of the blockchain to really be effective.
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