Wake up to the nightmare of things

Wearables, smart homes, smart buildings, smart cities and autonomous vehicles are among the technological breakthroughs that are starting to gain traction.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas gives a glimpse of what the tech pioneers think will be hot in coming years, and the era of internet-connected things is starting to capture people’s imagination.

Internet-connected “things” are not considered computers, according to Forrester principal analyst Jeff Pollard, who, in this week’s issue, assesses the challenges the industry faces. You can’t expect a homeowner to patch his or her internet-connected fridge, heating system or baby monitor, even though – as was demonstrated last year – such things can be exploited to launch massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, taking down some of the internet’s biggest players.

Worryingly, many of the companies at CES only expect their products to last a couple of years. Two years’ support, while generous in IT terms, is meaningless if the device is embedded in someone’s home or integrated into thousands of street lights in a smart city.

People balk at the idea of paying upfront extended warranties to cover new products such as refrigerators or washing machines for five years.

Smart TVs just a few years old no longer get firmware updates because their operating system is unsupported. That is not very smart, especially if that device could be exploited in a DDoS attack.

Manufacturers want people to buy the latest product, but, as with a smart TV, the one being replaced still works. It may well be used as a second television or handed down to a family member, who will happily plug it into the internet, so it can carry on being exploited.

The use of the internet of things (IoT) to improve society is limited only by our imagination, but at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, experts will portray IoT nightmare scenarios to business leaders and politicians.

If the Ukrainian power grid can be crippled by an internet attack, what else is possible? Whether or not it is proved to be true that a US presidential election can be influenced by hackers illustrates the possible risks an internet-connected society will need to consider.