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I've always been a fan of useless gadgets. High on my list were pizza scissors, the smartphone case that doubles as a hairbrush, and a battery-powered, swirling spaghetti fork. Lately, thanks to the Internet of Things—loosely defined as everyday devices linked to the Internet, thereby making them smart—I'm spoiled for choice.
As far as I can tell, the IoT involves sticking a computer chip into something you can buy at Home Depot or Walmart, from fridges to baby monitors, and linking it to an app. You can buy smart toothbrushes, thermostats and tampons—if you don't believe me, go to trackmyflow.com. Starting at $1,200 (all currency in U.S. dollars), faucet maker Moen has a smart-shower contraption that allows you to control the heat of your water from your smartphone. No more waiting naked for 10 or 20 agonizing seconds while the water warms up.
My favourite is a $199 automated cup called Vessyl, made by a San Francisco company, that bills itself as a hydration and nutrition tracker. Pour in a liquid, make sure the cup is charged up, and it will identify your drink. Pour in beer, and the word "beer" will light up on the outside. Confirmation is always appreciated, I guess, and imagine the fun you could have trying to confuse your smart cup by filling it with a mix of Coke and red wine.
The IoT wasn't invented merely to entertain us, of course: Some of it is genuinely useful. Smart cities have the potential to solve public problems like traffic congestion. Internet-connected self-driving cars promise a transportation revolution. The IoT market is potentially massive, assuming that consumers keep buying into the dream of a connected domestic utopia in the same way readers of Popular Mechanics in the 1950s dreamed of flying cars. Gartner, an information technology research firm, estimates that more than 20 billion gadgets and appliances will be connected to the Internet by 2020.
But the IoT also has a dark side. Any object that can connect to the Internet can make you an invasion-of-privacy victim, because it can be hacked. Reports of hacking are piling up, and you have to wonder whether the IoT will blow up in the same way that the dot-coms blew up in the early 2000s. A house-renovator friend in
Toronto told me that enthusiasm for home automation is already waning, partly because so many of the devices, like Bluetooth-enabled door locks, are of dubious utility. But many homeowners also don't relish the idea of turning living rooms and kitchens into potential listening devices for spooks, advertisers and digital pranksters. (Greasy computer nerd in a Moscow basement: "Let's make this guy's smart fridge order 187,000 cartons of Eggos.")
Many of the security breaches so far seem sinister. In March, documents published by WikiLeaks purported to reveal that the CIA had launched a program called Weeping Angel, which found ways to turn Samsung Internet-connected TVs into devices that could record conversations even when sets were turned off. The CIA declined to comment—a non-denial. WikiLeaks also said the CIA was looking into hacking car-control systems, presumably making the cars vulnerable to crashes, which "would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations."
Last year, hackers attacked the electronic key-card system of a hotel in Austria, preventing guests from getting back into their rooms. The hotel's manager sent a ransom of $1,800 worth of bitcoin—typically the currency of choice of blackmailers—to unlock the doors. Early this year, hackers exposed more than two million messages recorded by parents and children playing with Internet-enabled teddy bears. What these various episodes proved is that many makers of consumer products can't be bothered, or can't afford, to invest in sophisticated encryption software.
Another annoyance with IoT gadgets is perfectly legal monitoring by collectors of massive amounts of consumer data, among them Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter. "Smart devices are all about surveillance—tracking your habits," says Jacob Silverman, author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection. "The question is whether they use your data responsibly."
As artificial intelligence makes the IoT more sophisticated, the gadgets' ability to monitor your behavioural habits rises. The advent of intelligent, voice-activated personal assistants like Siri (used by Apple) and Alexa (Amazon) has the potential to expose every aspect of your domestic life to Big Data capitalism. Ask Alexa a health question and you might get bombarded with ads for Fitbit exercise trackers. All this data also can be sold around the world by data brokers.
The best way to fight off all these invasions of privacy is to steer clear of Internet-enabled gadgets. The IoT and all its cleverness are better suited for big fixes, like making cities safer, cleaner and less congested. Besides, do you really need a Bluetooth-enabled frying pan or smart garbage can?