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Is the world ready for the Internet of Things?

Security concerns need to be addressed before the widespread adoption of IoT technology, says internet architect and Turing Award winner Dr Vinton Gray Cerf.

By Sim Shuzhen

Widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of the internet, Dr Cerf was speaking at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2017 (GYSS 2017), held from 15 to 20 January 2017 at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

In 1973, Dr Cerf (together with fellow Turing Award winner Robert Kahn) developed the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which allowed packets of information to be reliably transmitted between computers on different networks, effectively allowing them to communicate. Without these protocols, there would be no internet — they form the fundamental architecture of the World Wide Web as we know it today.

Now Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, Dr Cerf has spent much of his career trying to help more people gain access to the internet. But more recently, he has also turned his attention to the IoT — a highly anticipated set of technologies that has tremendous potential to transform how we live and work.

The possibilities for networked devices are endless: imagine a refrigerator that automatically orders ingredients for your dinner from the grocery store, motion sensors that send you a text to let you know when your children are home from school, or a smart thermostat that helps you save on energy costs.

Hackproofing the IoT

Before this vision of the future can be realised, however, there is much that needs to be done.

“I don’t have answers for you. I’m just putting these problems on the table and hoping that some of you will do research to fix them,” quipped Dr Cerf, addressing the room of young scientists.

A top priority, said Dr Cerf, is ensuring that IoT devices are safe. This includes making them malware-free, as well as building in stringent authentication checks. Voice recognition technology, for example, not only has to be able to tell what was said, but also who said it — no one wants to live in a house that obeys commands from strangers.

“I tell my engineers that they have a basic ethical responsibility to build in safety checks and security mechanisms to protect innocent users,” said Dr Cerf.

Safeguarding the data collected by IoT devices is also critical — even information as seemingly innocuous as temperature readings could pose a danger if it fell into the wrong hands.

“If you have six months’ worth of temperature data, you may be able to figure out how many people are in the house, which rooms they are in, or what their diurnal patterns are. You might be able to figure out when the house is likely to be empty — and if you happen to be somebody who wants to rob the house, that’s useful data,” cautioned Dr Cerf.

Ensuring the longevity of IoT devices

Since IoT devices are connected to a network, the software they run on can be updated on a regular basis.

“This is a powerful tool for augmenting the functionality of these devices, in addition to fixing bugs,” said Dr Cerf.

But this also raises the question of how long companies should be responsible for providing support. Consumers might expect household devices — light switch controls, for instance — to last for at least twenty to thirty years. There is no guarantee, however, that the company that made the device would still be in existence after that span of time, or that the software’s source code would be made available for another company to take over.

“It’s not clear what commitments companies should make about the support and maintenance of the software for these devices,” said Dr Cerf.

Software updates also carry with them their own set of security issues. A self-driving car, for example, will need to be able to apply stringent checks to the software it downloads — this will ensure that it is free of malware that could put passengers’ lives in danger.

“We need to be able to strongly authenticate the source of the information, so that the recipient device can decide if it wants to accept the update,” said Dr Cerf.

Setting the standard

Given the buzz surrounding the IoT and its applications, it is no surprise that many companies have jumped on the bandwagon with their own versions of smart devices. But this has resulted in a messy state of affairs.

“Everybody is going in whatever direction they think is best — they’re all pushing to get products out the door,” said Dr Cerf. “So you have this splattering of standards and protocols, none of which are even necessarily working.”

The house of the future could hold hundreds of devices, while a smart manufacturing plant or other industrial setup could contain them in the thousands. It would be a huge barrier to adoption if consumers were forced to use a different app for each one. Developers and manufacturers, therefore, need to adopt a set of standards that allow for interoperability, said Dr Cerf.

Beyond convenience for the consumer, interoperability could also allow devices to be used cooperatively in innovative new ways.

“Ensembles of devices from multiple manufacturers, working together, can be a really powerful way of igniting new ideas,” said Dr Cerf. “Enabling the invention of new applications ought to be a very valuable aspect of the design and implementation of the IoT.”

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