How Your Next Fridge Will Turn on You
There is considerable buzz about the internet of things, smart devices and connected devices. These devices range from toothbrushes to underwear to cars. As might be imagined, one might wonder whether a person really needs a connected toothbrush or even a connected fridge. While the matter of need is interesting, I’ll focus on other matters.
One obvious point of concern is the fact that a device connected to the internet can be hacked. In some cases, people will engage in prank hacking. For example, a wit might hack a friend’s connected fridge to say “I am sorry Dave. No pie for you” in Hal’s voice. Of greater concern is the possibility that people will engage in truly malicious hacking. For example, a smart fridge might be hacked and shut off, allowing the food in it to spoil. Or the temperature might be lowered so that the food in the refrigerator is frozen. As another example, it might be possible to burn out the motors in a washing machine—something analogous to what happened in the famous case of the Iranian centrifuges. Or a dryer might be hacked in a way that could burn down a house. As a final example, consider the damage that could be done by someone hacking the systems in a connected car, such as turning it off while it is roaring down the highway or disabling the software that allows the car to brake.
Because of these risks, manufacturers will make considerable effort to ensure that the devices are safe even when hacked. Naturally, the easiest way to stay safer is to stick with dumb, unconnected devices—no one can hack my 1997 washing machine nor my 2001 Toyota Tacoma from the internet. But, of course, being safe in this way would entail missing out on the alleged benefits of the connected lifestyle. I cannot, for example, turn on my washer from work—I have to walk over to the machine and turn it on. As another example, my non-smart fridge cannot send me a text telling me to buy more pie. I have to remember when I am out of pie.
Another obvious point of concern is that connected devices can easily be used as spies—they can send all sorts of data to companies, governments and individuals. For example, a suitably smart connected fridge could provide data about its contents on a regular basis, thus providing a decent report on the users’ purchasing and consumption behavior. As another example, a suitably smart connected car can provide all sorts of behavioral and location data. It goes without saying that the NSA will be accessing all these devices and siphoning vast amounts of data about us. It also goes without saying that corporations will be doing the same—just think about Google appliances, cars, and underwear. Individuals, such as stalkers and thieves, will also be keen to get the data from such devices. These concerns are, obviously, not new ones—but the more we are connected, the more our privacy will be violated.
A practical concern is that such devices will be more complicated than the non-smart devices they replace, perhaps making them less reliable, more expensive and such that they become obsolete sooner. While my washer is not smart, it has proven to be very reliable: I’ve had it repaired once since 1997. In contrast, I’ve had to replace my smart devices (like my PC and tablets) to keep up with changes. For example, the used iPad 1 I own is stuck on version 5 of the iOS—and Apple is now on version 7. While some apps still update and run, many do not. Just imagine if your fridge, washer, dryer and car get on the high tech upgrade cycle of being obsolete (and perhaps unusable) in a few years. While this will be great for the folks who want to sell us a new fridge every 2-3 years, it might not be so great for the consumer.
While I do like technology and can see the value in smart, connected devices, I do have these concerns about them. Of course, my best defense against them is that I am a low-paid professor: I’ll only be replacing my current non-smart devices when they can no longer be repaired.