If you think you can avoid the perils of data hacking and cyberattacks by logging off the internet, you’re sorely mistaken. We now live in the era of the “Internet of Things” – devices ranging from home assistants and smartphones to coffee makers and lightbulbs – that are digitally connected to one another, and vulnerable to the same kinds of dangers as your email account. In his New York Times editorial this week, “From Westworld to Best World for the Internet of Things,” Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard professor and celebrated expert on the threats, opportunities and ethical implications of all things digital, offers three practical solutions to the emerging problem of even our most basic household appliances being connected to a wider (and often dangerous) world.
Discussing last month’s FBI warning about home internet routers potentially containing foreign malware, Zittrain brings the matter to its logical conclusion: everything is in peril. “[The warning] underscores how unprepared we are to manage downstream-networked devices and appliances — the ‘internet of things’ — that are vulnerable to attack.” Zittrain’s examples include cars being hacked and having their brakes disabled, household appliances having safety features overridden and causing fires, and pacemakers being remotely disabled. All these possibilities could prove dangerous to individuals, but conducted in unison by hackers could amount to a catastrophic attack on society.
Zittrain offers solutions that, though directed at policymakers and non-profits, should be considered proactively by all companies in lieu of formal regulation:
- Help others take responsibility for the products they plan to abandon – contributing to an “Island of Misfit Toys.”
- Develop products that can function without being connected to the internet should users want to disconnect due to fear of malicious malware.
- Devices should be able to communicate with others not made by the same firm, “the way that, say, Mac and PC users seamlessly exchange email.”
As the scrambling of Facebook to regain its tarnished reputation after the Cambridge Analytica hacking scandal showed, companies are to blame when data and platforms are compromised, and they will be. But a successful mass hacking in the Internet of Things can prove far worse, as it may involve the physical harming of human beings on a massive scale. Firms that want to ensure they do not go down in history as the enablers of disaster could stand to pay attention to Zittrain’s recommendations.