Why you should be extremely cautious if anyone tries to tempt you into the internet of things

One of my customers who is something of an IT whiz loves to regale me with tales of IT disasters.

Now that might seem a little contradictory, but her view is that everyone – or maybe I should say “nearly everyone” – who works in IT, knows perfectly well that by and large digital technology is packed solid with flaws and errors.  “And,” says my customer, “we keep telling everyone but no one listens.”

So, determined as always not to be just part of the herd, I asked for more details, promising as ever a cup of my deliciously brewed and some would say “unique brand” of instant coffee.

Curiously my client declined the offer, but settled down to tell me another outrageous story anyway.

“Digital technology,” she said, picking up her theme, “is imperfect in many regards.  And yet it is sold as being perfect.”

“That is not particularly unusual,” I countered.  “I mean everyone knows that cars break down and have crashes, but we still all expect our cars to work immediately and perfectly every day.  No one allows an extra hour for a journey in case something goes wrong.”

“But at least with cars, we know more or less what sort of things might go wrong,” she countered.  “With digital technology no one imagines what can go wrong.”

That seemed quite a challenging statement, so I demanded an explanation.

“If you were to visit Moscow,” I was told, “and you try to use any satellite navigation system to help you find your way to Red Square you will find you can’t.  For what the local government calls ‘security reasons’ all the satnav systems in the area are blocked.”

“But in that case,” I countered, “I know it is blocked, because it doesn’t work.  That doesn’t seem too different from a car to me.”

“True enough,” said my customer, “but with the car most of the time we know that the worst that can happen is that we can be late.  To stay with satellite navigation there are far worse things that can happen.

“If your satnav stops working, that’s that – you know at once.  But if it starts giving you false information and sending you to the wrong place, that can be more frustrating.  If it sends you over a cliff, or along a road that has been mined, that is rather more disastrous.  In the past six months we’ve seen about 100 ships being sent dangerously close to a rock strewn shoreline when they thought they were in a safe navigable channel.  The satnavs had been hacked.”

“OK,” I agreed, “hacking satellite navigation is dangerous.  But most of the internet of things is about everyday objects that don’t have life threatening effects.”

“You mean like your electrical appliances and the fact that you can switch them on to brew you a wonderful cup of … er… instant coffee so that it is ready just as you walk in the door.  Of course I understand that view, and I investigated one such two months ago.

“It was a system that allows you to set things up in your house when you are not there – like pulling the curtains, letting the cat in and providing cat food, and indeed turning on the kettle.

“When I did my review I found that it was all set to allow control via an app which worked through Bluetooth.  It had within it an unchangeable access code of 0000.  Meaning anyone with basic IT knowledge can enter the system and do anything from overfeed the cat to set the house on fire by keeping kettles boiling long after the water has run out.

I agreed this sounded worrying, but my customer was by no means finished.

“I wrote to the company selling the system three times to tell them of the fault – they have never replied and they are still selling the system with the same 0000 code.  But in the latest edition it now also includes the option of having an electronic key to the front and back doors so that when you pull up outside and then lock your car, the front door is simultaneously unlocked, so you don’t have to fiddle with the key while holding the stuff you have just unloaded from the car.

“Anyone can hack it in about three seconds, and thus gain total access to your house, immobilise the burglar alarm, steal anything they want, and should they wish, have a cup of coffee.

“That is why I keep copies of paper documents in the Admiral warehouse, even though I have them on two computers.  There is a chance that your warehouse might be sitting on top of a long forgotten volcano and I might lose my documents – but that is about a 1 in 100 million chance which is similar to the earth being struck by an asteroid similar to the one that killed the dinosaurs.

“There is a chance that my computer will be hacked and my documents corrupted.  That is about one in 100 even with all the security I have. Yours is the best back up option.”

I pondered my customer’s words for several moments, sipping my instant (not digitised) coffee made with water from a regular (not IT of Things) kettle.   Eventually I asked, “Would you like to write adverts for me?”

“No,” she replied, “but you can use this conversation on that blog of yours if you like.”

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