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Pew: ‘Internet of Things’ big by 2025 despite security, inequality worries

Report says most devices will communicate with each other and people, but poor could be left behind

The future is already here. A mischievous hacker group was recently caught using a refrigerator to send malicious email spam. The concept is mind-boggling to most people on many levels: first, that your refrigerator could send an email; second, that someone could “hack” your freezer; and, last, that your cooler could even have a Wi-Fi connection. Your kitchen isn’t a Starbucks.

However, a new, groundbreaking report from Pew Research Center and Elon University says this all-connected world is where we are headed fast. By 2025, according to the study, most of our devices will be communicating with people and, more important, with each other through online connections. It is called the Internet of Things, and it is already raising concerns around security, privacy and an increasing gulf between society’s haves and have-nots.

“I would describe the Internet of Things as devices or objects that connect to the Internet — and each other,” said Samuel Greengard, author of the upcoming book “The Internet of Things.” “The IoT typically involves three [possible] types of interactions: machine to machine, human to machine, and machine to smartphone or mobile device.”

The connected Kolibree toothbrush includes a sensor that detects how much tartar is being removed in a brushing. It also records brushing activity so users can maintain a consistent cleaning each time.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Experts say the Internet of Things is less a reinvention than an upgrade to tech tools already used by many. Imagine that your electric toothbrush is smart enough to know that it has been six months since your last dentist appointment. Using a cell, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection, the toothbrush will reach out to your online calendar, see when you are available for a checkup and email potential dates to your dentist’s receptionist. The assistant confirms a date by email, and it is saved in your calendar.

For the new study “The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025,” authors Janna Anderson, director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, and Lee Rainie, director of Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, garnered more than 1,600 responses from tech culture experts.

“Many experts say the rise of embedded and wearable computing will bring the next revolution in digital technology,” Anderson and Rainie say in the report. “They say the upsides are enhanced health, convenience, productivity, safety, and vastly more useful information for people and organizations. The downsides: challenges to personal privacy, overhyped expectations, and tech complexity that boggles us.”

Inequality gap could widen

The Fitbit Flex monitors data such as steps walked, calorie consumption and hours of sleep and transfers the information to a smartphone to maintain the user's health.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

A simple current example is the oil giant BP handing out Fitbit health monitors to its corporate team. The device keeps track of heart rate, daily steps taken and other details. It then gives a health report back to the company. The better the health report, the lower the insurance costs.

The Pew/Elon report points to a big problem with this and many other IoT opportunities: Not everyone works for a conglomerate like BP that can afford to purchase IoT devices and pass those savings on to its employees. In fact, it’s doubtful the average person could afford to upgrade daily items and take advantage of the newest tech. Like Tesla electric cars and first-edition iPhones, the most useful technology is almost always cost-prohibitive. Many low-income Americans are just trying to keep their simple, non-smart items going for one more day.

“A theme [from many experts] is that the nonconnected are likely to fall further behind in any number of ways,” Rainie said. “If the ‘teched up’ have better tools for managing their health, the non-connected could miss out on those improvements. If those deeply immersed in the Internet of Things experience new conveniences and efficiencies in their lives, then the nonconnected will have to work harder to get access to the basics of advanced society. If machines are able to take charge of some basic life logistics for the connected, then those offline will face new deficits just because they’ll have to work harder to get through their days.”

Greengard agreed, saying the nonconnected will be fine with the superficial stuff, but will have trouble as the IoT becomes more necessary.

“Do we really need refrigerators and pantries auto-generating lists of things to refill or buy? Probably not,” he said. “On the other hand, the ability to identify when a part is about to fail in an airplane or subway system is extremely valuable. Likewise, sensors inside the body that monitor organs and tissue and identify when a dose of medicine is needed — and then dispense it in an optimal manner — is potentially lifesaving. So, in the latter scenario, those who have money and access to technology will likely reap the health rewards, while others rely on older approaches and technology.”

Security concerns abound

Dan, a 38-year-old from San Diego, said he is excited about the health benefits … but not much else.

“I’d love a device letting me know if my blood pressure is too high versus getting the info at a checkup six or 12 months later,” he said.

But when pressed about the device potentially giving his doctor a heads-up over a wireless connection, Dan said the independent communication aspect is what bothers him.

“In the wake of the NSA issue, we’re realizing that Internet searches, online posts and other data can be used against you,” he said.

When it comes to the Internet of Things, Dan’s biggest concern is the lack of security for all the data being shared between devices.

“The security is atrocious,” he said, “and it will probably be ridiculous for a while, like worrying if your toaster is going to get a virus or start listening to your conversations.”

Rainie said Dan’s tongue-in-cheek description isn’t too far from what experts warn in the report.

“You read these answers [in the report],” he said, “and get an inescapable feeling the experts expect an arms race between the good guys and the bad guys over who gets to control the Internet of Things and how vulnerable its systems will be.”

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