Imagine Your Car Crashed as Much as Your Computer

Commentary, Disruption, Eamonn Brosnan

Back in my early days of plying the dark recesses of the Internet (early 1990s for me) I came across a story of a Coke machine that you could query from anywhere on the Internet and it would give you a status on the temperature of the drinks, the last time it was stocked, and how full it was. This machine was located in the Computer Science department of Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. The reason for this was because computer programmers such as myself live on caffeine, but who wants to walk all the way to the machines only to find that they are empty or still warm?

In this day and age, we use a multitude of devices that have come from the minds of programmers and hardware designers, and many actually benefit our lives. Everything from our smartphones to social media, from the word processor I’m writing this column on to the Angry Birds your kids (or you) play on your phone. And now, from your fridge to your car, and from your home security to your furnace. This is now the coming future of the “Internet of Things”, or IOT.

Simply put, IOT is just a name that we have applied to the coming age of having a variety of appliances and other “things” that have typically existed in our lives before but haven’t been paired with computers and the ability to communicate and share that information with us or with other “things.” Today you can buy home security equipment, everything from window and door sensors to motion sensors, that will notify you, via an app on your phone, of your home status without paying for pricey monitoring companies.

You can install video cameras that can be rotated by your app, that would allow you to view your house while away. You can lock and unlock doors remotely and you can adjust the temperature settings of your home while sitting in an airport gate waiting area. You can turn lights on and off, as desired. You can check to see if you left your oven on or forgot to lock your car. All of these things are possible today, and will only become more prevalent as the technology becomes more affordable.

The progression to 5G technologies for communications will enable this even further, as we will have more and more data from more and more sources being exchanged. Cars will be able to exchange information with traffic control centres, allowing authorities to respond to slow downs and accidents more quickly. Traffic control centres will be able to direct cars (self-driving or piloted by a person) to take alternative routes when a new slow down has been detected.

Medical devices, both home and personal, have already been equipped with the ability to communicate wirelessly. CPAP machines (that are used to treat Sleep Apnea) can be accessed via the internet by professionals to monitor the user’s sleep quality. Pacemakers and insulin pumps can track the history of events and have the information downloaded for review. This is just the start, as we continue to boost our technologies and our ability to both shrink them in size as well as communicate robustly with them, we will be able to solve a multitude of health issues. The benefits, both those that are possible and those that already being realized, are immense.

But — and there is always a but — there are serious questions about malfunctions, privacy, and security. Should employers or insurance companies be allowed to review our driving history, as recorded by our now computer-enhanced cars? Should they be allowed to review the logs of our CPAP to determine how often we fail to use it, or our pacemakers to determine our current health conditions?

Who will ensure that such devices have been tested thoroughly? Who will ensure that our privacy is protected? Who will ensure that these devices are secure and cannot be breached? Ultimately, it is up to us to ensure that our government is doing enough to protect these things. We need to demand that our representatives stand up and push for our rights and safety to be protected rather than allowing rules and regulations to be established by the manufacturers.

There is currently a recall in the US of insulin pumps due to weak security, which could have allowed someone to possibly alter settings in a person’s pump, causing it to either release too much or not enough insulin. It was demonstrated at a cybersecurity conference in January of this year that a security flaw in certain pacemakers would have allowed someone to trigger a lethal shock to a victim from 50 feet away. These pacemakers are now under recall to address this issue.

Ultimately, we are all responsible for the devices that we use or purchase, however we cannot be expected to know or understand the details of every new device or appliance that we need or desire, so we rely upon our experts; be it your doctor, your car salesman, or your appliance salesman. But truthfully, those experts rely upon information given to them by manufacturers and government certifying agencies. We need to ensure that this information is as accurate, and as thoroughly tested, as possible. I would hate, after all, for my car to crash as often as my computer.