What is the Internet of Things?

Imagine a day where you wake up in the morning to your 6 o’clock alarm, the lights throughout your home slowly brighten and the coffee pot starts brewing a cup before you even finish stretching, your mirror displays the time and weather forecast for you after your shower, and as you walk out the front door, the lights turn off, the thermostat lowers its temperature, and all the windows and doors lock behind you. That thought may seem far into the future, but with home and lifestyle automation through IoT devices, it could easily become reality in our technologically advancing society.

Since the release of Siri, Apple’s personal assistant for iPhone in 2011, software and smart devices that utilize voice recognition have been on a steady rise with, “”Predictions by technology companies and research firms [ranging] from 20.8 billion to 75 billion connected devices by 2020″”(Brill and Jones). However, as with any new technology, there are still many questions surrounding these devices, such as privacy and security concerns, as well as the social changes they may bring along with them. These devices have certainly shaped a new age of technology in our modern world, affecting nearly all aspects of everyday life. I have much less experience with these technologies when compared to my peers, as I do not have an iPhone with Siri, never use the Google Assistant on my Google Pixel, and my family doesn’t have a Google Home or Amazon. This lack of experience and knowledge of these companion and assistant devices, also known as The Internet of Things (IoT devices), is a significant reason why I want to investigate them. I believe that this is an important topic to explore because more and more devices are becoming connected to the internet, and we must understand how they work, as well as the benefits and consequences of using them.

Before delving into this topic, it is important to distinguish what technologies we are discussing. The Internet of Things is a term referring to, “”the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.”” (Brill and Jones). That being said, all “”smart”” devices today are IoT devices; they have some sort of AI that collects data through microphones, cameras, or sensors, which is then sent to a server for processing, and often, the smart device will return information to the user. It may be easy, and partly true, to simply conclude that Siri, your Fitbit, a Smart Lock for your front door or Google Home are only devices that utilize other technologies, and are not all that useful without access to the internet or other software and applications. However, the focus of this paper will be directed towards the implications of IoT devices ability to use other technologies, sending data back and forth, and their potential as both harmful and helpful devices. It is also important to note that not all of the negatives and positives we will discuss from one device are applicable to another. While there are certainly generalized perks and drawbacks of IoT devices, we will investigate specific examples as they pertain to some of these more generalized ideas, as well as discussing their individual problems or benefits.

First, let’s discuss the immediate benefits of having these voice recognizing, AI companions. In their first iterations of design, the IoT was only applied to smaller objects, with the mobile phone and smartwatch being the most common. One could say ‘hey Siri, what’s the weather forecast for today?’, and Siri would tell you. Simple tasks with easy answers or easy solutions would often be thrown to Siri or an equivalent AI. A busy worker might not have time to stop what they’re doing, and can simply tell their phone to schedule an appointment, set a reminder, or even call a family member, completely hands-free. Now, this technology has been implemented in other aspects of daily life, which can prove especially useful for those with who are disabled or have low mobility. A Google Home device can be rigged to various appliances in the home of someone disabled, making life much less stressful than it needs to be. Instead of having to get over to a light switch, or directly access some appliances, the homeowner can simply ask their AI companion to do it for them; ‘Ok Google, turn the bedroom lights off.’ Allowing these smart devices into the homes of the disabled or impaired will allow them to be more dependent than ever before, living a more normalized life. Overall, including IoT devices in our homes and daily lives will help us become more productive and efficient, leaving smaller, easier tasks for our AI companions to do when asked.

Some devices are designed specifically for only one purpose, and one appliance, such as the Samsung Smart Hub refrigerator, which lets people use their phones to see what they need at the store, or simply browse the contents of your fridge from another room. This Smart Hub refrigerator acts just like any other, with the added bonus of being able to view the contents of the fridge using cameras tucked away on the inside. Owners can also set unique expiration notifications and view nutritional information for food items, and make a shopping list on the refrigerators Hub using only their voice, which allows for advanced meal planning. Another example of an IoT device designed for one general purpose is the Nest Smart Home thermostat. This thermostat was the first of its kind, allowing homeowners to control the temperature of their homes through their phones, and set up custom settings. The Nest thermostat also lets you schedule when it will be active, so a homeowner can have the heat run during the night, but turn off in the morning, saving energy and money.

Finally, the connection of all these IoT devices in many areas of our lives can be especially beneficial when it comes to information accessibility. Not only are assistant applications like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana able to answer nearly anything with a clearly defined answer, but they can also help us process information much better, as computing devices were designed to do. When your phone, fridge, thermostat, car, and television can all send data back and forth, there is an endless stream of information for us to access from any node on the vast network of devices. With this in mind, it might not be unreasonable to say that as long as we have an IoT device that functions just as we need it to, we don’t need to rely on each other. The only catch to this idea is the fact that IoT devices and AI still have a long way to go before they can achieve any human-like status. They don’t understand crucial aspects of human behavior, such as tone of voice and attitude. They don’t know if you are angry or upset unless you explicitly tell them, and even then, they can’t do much in response. The devices we can safely put in our homes today do not have minds of their own, and they will not rebel against us in an epic battle of man versus machine.

Following the positives of IoT devices, we now need to explore their negatives. The most prevalent concern is about the privacy of the owner or user, and their information. In our modern world, nearly all users on the Internet personal information is kept somewhere online. These machines are just another way of collecting information about the population, with harmless intent, but possible downsides. One of the most common ideas thrown around regarding privacy today, an idea displayed through the concept of “”Big Brother”” in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is that ‘Google is always listening’ – And that may be true. Information about users is constantly being collected and interpreted by AI. Take your browsing history as an example. If you use Google’s search engines to find information about a certain item or topic, you are bound to see advertisements on websites with similar items. Just under a month ago I bought my girlfriend a ring for this upcoming Christmas. I did my research, looked at many stores online from both corporate and small businesses. Sure enough, I still have advertisements on websites flashing all kinds of jewelry, specifically rings, in my face. The fact is, Google and other companies who wish to serve consumers with IoT devices must constantly be advancing through the better collection and processing of information. Unfortunately for consumers, the information that corporations find useful might just be all information.

However, some companies are not always the best at keeping user information safe, and some will sell less valuable information about their users. Recently, Facebook had a major scandal where the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest personally identifiable user information, along with names, such as age, gender, sexual orientation, political views, and religion. This was done through, “”a variety of factors, broadly including inadequate safeguards against companies engaging in data harvesting, little to no oversight of developers by Facebook, developer abuse of the Facebook API, and users agreeing to overly broad terms and conditions”” (Sanders, J., & Patterson, D). In this case, Facebook was not intentionally giving away personal information, but the poor management and security systems they had in place allowed for outside sources to exploit users.

Besides having information exploited or hacked into, sometimes these devices can go rogue, recording an excessive amount of information about a user, and do things that they are not supposed to. Such was the case of a Google Home Mini that was recording everything a tech report said in his home for nearly 3 days. It should be noted that this Google Home Mini was a pre-release unit that was offered to tech reporters as a test before the device was sold publicly. The malfunctioning Mini’s owner stated, “”Several days passed without me noticing anything wrong. In the meantime, as it turns out, the Mini was behaving very differently from all the other Homes and Echos in my home – it was waking up thousands of times a day, recording, then sending those recordings to Google.”” (Hatmaker, Taylor). IoT hub devices such as the Google Home and Amazon Echo are technically always on, but only ‘active’ when they hear the activation prompt, such as ‘Ok Google’. However, they could sometimes misinterpret commands or think they heard the wake-up prompt when it was never said, leading to sometimes amusing, sometimes dangerous situations. They could easily become a security risk if manipulated by an outside source, allowing third parties breaching the privacy and security of your home. This threat becomes even greater when IoT hub devices can access appliances throughout the home, such as a smart lock on the front door.

Most mobile phones now come with an arsenal of identification systems that allow only personal access to that device. Before buying any new device that utilizes voice recognition or any other form of identification, it is important to understand where that information is being sent and how it will be used. Personally, I have a Google Pixel, and I think it is a fantastic phone. To unlock it, all I have to do is press either my left or right index finger to the scanner on the back. The latest generations of iPhones now have a FaceID system along with their fingerprint scanner, where all you need to do for your device to unlock is look into the camera. Both of these forms of identification can be very risky. If millions of phones are collecting peoples fingerprints, pictures of their faces, and recording their voices, a possible breach in that data could cause serious issues in security.

Overall, IoT devices can be extremely beneficial to people living in an ever progressing society that relies on technology for nearly every aspect of our lives. Devices can be designed to assist those who are disabled or have impaired mobility, such as the elderly or someone recovering from a surgery. While there are remaining concerns regarding the privacy and security of individuals who use IoT devices in their homes and daily lives, these issues can be solved. With stricter laws surrounding big corporations uses of the personal information of their consumers and advancements in cybersecurity, the potential harm of IoT devices can certainly be outweighed by the benefits of introducing them into our lives.

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