When you and your colleagues in IT hear the CEO talking about the Internet of Things, the excitement in the CEO's voice means only one thing: You're unlikely to be home in time for dinner for quite some time. Boards and CEOs see all of the potential benefits of this all-inclusive toasters-and-vacuum-cleaners-connected-to-the-Internet scenario and think little of the nightmarish risks.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong when you have dozens of household appliances and devices being controlled by any seemingly authenticated person on the other side of an Ethernet connection?
For starters, you could point out to the higher-ups that the Internet of Things has the potential to introduce millions of new backdoors into networks, putting proprietary information at risk. But you know what they'll tell you: "Well, it's your job to make sure that doesn't happen. Take care of it." If you spin up more elaborate threats -- such as someone taking over your oven, turning on the gas and turning off the pilot lights and blowing you up -- they'll likely say that you've been watching too many bad movies.
But being responsible for the information and device security of all of these things is only half the nightmare. How about handling the oceans of new data that you'll be responsible for managing, protecting and analyzing? You thought mobile data avalanches were bad? Wait until every car, refrigerator and vacuum cleaner is sending you files. And while you're dealing with all that, who in your company is keeping the alarming privacy threats of the Internet of Things in check?
If you think this all sounds silly, take a look at Google's purchase of Nest, a sophisticated household thermostat. Talk about data potential. What do you think is going to happen when you give a company that makes its money from advertising a window into your temperature settings? If you're someone who is always cranking up the heat, Google might send you an offer for 20% off electric blankets, firewood or two weeks in the Caribbean.
Does that not seem all that intrusive to you? (Excuse me; I meant helpful.) Well, then, let's say that your Nest thermostat has recorded a long history of you keeping the thermostat at 71 degrees during the winter months but you suddenly start to set it at 66. Google's algorithms take note, make some calculations and conclude that you are in dire financial straits. Now you're getting offers for low-interest loans or selling your gold jewelry for cash now. Maybe your neighbor doesn't realize that you've been laid off, but Google does.
But this isn't just about Google wanting to know all about you -- though heaven knows its appetite for information about everyone on the planet is ravenous. Lots of companies want to get into this game, all in the name of making life easier for you, though somehow it manages to fall to their advantage. Consider the vacuum cleaner. Now consider a young man who owns a networked vacuum, which notes that the young man goes from hardly ever running the vacuum to using it every few days. Result: Young man is inundated with offers of discounts on flowers, candy boxes and dinners for two. He can only hope Google, Amazon or whoever is behind those offers doesn't spill the beans to Mom before he has a chance.
Then there's the grand poobah of household appliances, from an advertising perspective: the networked refrigerator. By scanning the barcodes of its contents and monitoring containers' weight, the smart fridge can keep you informed about expiration dates and an impending exhaustion of supplies. ("Your milk is two days past its expiration date, and you have only two cold beers left.") Makers of those products are going to love having a new and compelling way to nudge consumers to buy more stuff.
Meanwhile, back in the IT data center, all of that data, from all kinds of appliances, will be pouring in, on top of the steadily increasing mobile datalanche you've been seeing for the last year or so.
And you still have to deal with those potential backdoors that you warned the CEO about, the ones he told you are your problem. You are not being overly paranoid about that. We have precedents. Remember when printers and scanners started getting network access and some rudimentary intelligence? IT was thrilled, until it realized that printers had become highly insecure backdoors into corporate networks.
That security threat was obscured by all of the cool things these devices could potentially do. Because who is going to deny that it's cool when your printer can recognize that your 228-page print job can't be completed because it has only 100 sheets of paper loaded, and that printer also has the smarts to send your job to a printer with 250 sheets loaded? Then that second printer realizes that those 250 sheets don't have the letterhead you need for this job, so it finds another printer better equipped for your needs. And the third printer assesses the sensitivity of what you plan to print and sends your job to a printer that has enough paper with the proper letterhead that is located behind a locked door. And it lets you know where to pick up your job and advises you that, since you lack the clearance to get into that room, you are going to need to get someone to let you in. You respond that you need this printout for a meeting at 2 p.m. in conference room 4660, and it calculates when it needs to start the print job and finds yet another printer that meets all your criteria and is located just steps from that conference room. I mean, all of that is very cool!
And so is the Internet of Things. But like those printers, the Internet of Things comes with some serious risks that you and your IT teams will need to clean up. But CEOs tend to get obsessed with all of the good things that a new initiative can do and assume that someone else has their back to ward off any potential dangers. That would be you. So get ready for a lot of new work, because the advantages of the Internet of Things are far too powerful to stop.
Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every Tuesday.
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