Pew Study: Despite Threats, the ‘Internet of Things’ Is Here to Stay

(CN) – The “Internet of Things” will continue to gain a foothold in our culture – leading to unquestionable benefits but also raising the specter of large-scale hacks that compromise privacy and security of global citizens, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.

Pew surveyed more than 1,200 technology experts, with questions focusing on how human connectivity to the internet and other machines will continue to evolve over the next decade, according to a study out Tuesday.

The overwhelming consensus is that while ransomware disruptions and cyberattacks will continue with devastating consequences for individuals and nations, humans will become increasingly connected to the web-enabled things.

“Participants in this canvassing said a variety of forces will propel more connectivity over the next decade that manifests in things like cars, medical devices, public infrastructure and home ‘smart’ systems,” said Lee Rainie, co-author and director of Pew Research Center’s internet, technology and science research. “They argue that humans crave connection; that the Internet of Things will bring advantages that are useful; that people’s desire for convenience will usually prevail over their concerns about risk and these factors will make it difficult – if not impossible – for people to opt out of a highly connected life.”

The Internet of Things is a term first coined in 1996 by Kevin Ashton, a British technology pioneer who helped create innovative radio sensors at MIT.

In 1996, only 4 percent of the world was on the internet. Today, about half of the global population is connected, along with approximately 8.4 billion machines – including sensors, security systems, voice-activated assistances, home appliances, health-monitoring devices, smart meters, fitness trackers and traffic lights.

Of the survey respondents, 85 percent believe the trend of greater connection will continue heading toward 2026. However, a smaller percentage believes threats like identity theft, loss of privacy and a tendency of corporations to exploit the connectedness will cause many people to drop out of and shun the Internet of Things.

“At present, the Internet of Things is more a series of missteps than a grand design, if for no other reason than many of the large players are competitors versus cooperators and accepted protocols are still not agreed upon,” said Timothy Mack, a managing principal at AAI Foresight. “As well, the ‘gold rush’ quality of such areas as ‘smart homes’ has led to shoddy design and poor construction of the physical and the digital aspects of this brave new world. As for the loss of critical safety and security through networks trying to interconnect and protect and the same time (with largely the same tools), we should expect many more disappointments in the Internet of Things development saga.”

But most people say reliance on the Internet of Things won’t likely be optional for most working people, who will need to be conversant in electronic connectivity in order to compete in the marketplace.

“This question assumes that disconnecting remains a socially and economically viable option,” said Kate Crawford, a well-known researcher who studies the interaction between the internet and people. “For many millions of people, it simply won’t be. Quite apart from the individual use of devices and platforms, the infrastructure of everyday life will be networked. How does one ‘disconnect’ from your home, city, airport or health care system?”

Such compulsory connection causes some worries as the very connectedness of the system also leaves it open to safety and security vulnerabilities.

For example, organizers of a recent internet security conference arranged a hacking competition and computer programmers found 47 vulnerabilities in widely used machines that are connected to the Internet of Things.

Last month, the WannaCry ransomware attack encrypted data on computers running Microsoft operating systems around the world, including Britain’s National Health Service, Spain’s largest telecommunications networks and other companies such as FedEx – among a host of others.

But many technology experts say such instances and other attacks on privacy and security will be solved by technology experts moving forward.

“Biometric authentication and Internet of Things military research programs such as the HACMS [High-Assurance Cyber Military Systems] program will make the Internet of Things more secure,” said Patrick Tucker, a noted author and technology journalist. “That plus new services that spring up out of the Internet of Things ecosystem will shift the cost-benefit analysis of staying engaged and deepening engagement toward deepening.”

Moreover, most experts believe the fundamental human craving for connection and convenience will override any concerns about security or safety.

“Unless we have a disaster that triggers a major shift in usage, the convenience and benefits of connectivity will continue to attract users,” said David Clark, a scientist at MIT. “Evidence suggests that people value convenience today over possible future negative outcomes.”


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