The ubiquity of IoT has revolutionized every sector. In healthcare, IoT has provided critical real-time insights for patients and practitioners. Wearable tech can predict heart attacks and track changes in respiration associated with COVID. Wireless hospital beds track biometrics and communicate with other devices (i.e., X-rays or blood-pressure monitors) to monitor a patient’s health and automatically make necessary adjustments.
But while the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) is flourishing, it is facing an ever-present insidious threat: cybersecurity attacks that can disable essential systems, attack critical supplies, steal patient data, and lead to high costs for healthcare providers. COVID-19 has created new opportunities for cybercriminals to profit from attacks. I spoke to Sumit Sehgal, Strategic Product Marketing Director at Armis, to find out more.
The etiology of IoMT
Fixed function devices and implantable IoT have existed in connected healthcare for well over a decade. For example, healthcare providers commissioned the first commercial cochlear implant in the 1980s.
However, since its inception, the Internet of Medical Things (aka IoMT) has been a compelling opportunity for cyberattacks. In 2017, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled almost half a million pacemakers due to cyber threat vulnerabilities. Researchers found that St. Jude Medical’s RF-enabled implantable cardiac pacemakers contained security vulnerabilities that, if exploited, could allow an unauthorized user to access a patient’s device using commercially available equipment. Hackers could use this access to modify programming commands to the implanted pacemaker, resulting in patient harm from rapid battery depletion or administration of inappropriate pacing.
The FDA has also revealed vulnerabilities in specific insulin pumps, where an unauthorized person could potentially connect wirelessly to a nearby MiniMed insulin pump with cybersecurity vulnerabilities. A hack could change the pump’s settings to either over-deliver insulin to a patient, leading to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), or stop insulin delivery, leading to high blood sugar and diabetic ketoacidosis.
However, Sumit notes, the amount of effort needed to do so is exceptionally high.
“We see proof of concepts for these medical devices to be hacked. Can it be done at scale quickly? I would say it depends on the type of device and type of situation. The biggest change that has happened is the ability for raw compute power to figure out what the vulnerabilities are and to fingerprint that quickly and have an unauthenticated presence in that environment. The barrier to do that is very low, partly because of the distributed environment that we live in now.“
It is far easier to bring a hospital down by attacking the patient care ecosystem, including security cameras, lighting, vacuum tube systems, and monitors. Imagine an attack on just one elevator:
“If your hospital has 30 floors in a building, and the elevator control system goes down, it’s very difficult to move patients from surgery on the second floor to the ICU, which may be on the fifth floor. But it can cause chaos. And I think that’s [what] the industry is grappling with at this point.”
The last few years have cemented the efficacy of ransomware attacks via social phishing attacks via software, such as government municipalities disabled by crippling cyberattacks. Sumit explains, “We’re seeing a lot of changes occurring in the sense of purpose-built malware coming into specified devices or smart devices. We’re also seeing a diversion tactic where you create noise and distraction in one place while attacking elsewhere.”
The cost of security to innovation
Sumit speaks of an industry challenged by the pace of innovation vs. the relative costs of security: “Some of the newer devices are doing better in their approach to security management, because when you take a look at the device ecosystem, you have the large behemoths that have been around for 30, 40, 50 years, and at some point, you have to figure out where the money’s allocated to balance the innovation for newer tech and the legacy debt of products running 20 years past their expiry date. You have pretty much zero security for devices built about 10 years ago.“
However, new tech, especially the cloud-enabled tech, is, fortunately, leveraging the best security practices of the software development lifecycle. Sumit explains, “They’re architects of methodologies to help navigate not only just the data protection but identity and telemetry for behavior mapping because that’s kind of where the entire security industry is going with their approach on how to deal with this problem.”
Who is responsible for securing the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)?
According to Sumit, it takes a village. At some point, the responsibility of securing device data sits on the organization that’s harvesting it to provide the service. But hospitals can only do so much, because if you put data on a poorly designed device, then that becomes a device manufacturer issue.
He explains that a convergence of security responsibility is coming together across multiple parties within IoMT and healthcare:
“It’s said that during the pandemic, health care went through eight to 10 years of innovation in a span of eight months. Ti. hat has essentially coalesced itself in a way that’s forcing them to think about security more in the lens of the patient. That’s what’s helping improve the relationships, because both sides of the equation understand the use cases better. So that’s helping with shared understanding from a device behavior perspective.”
He notes that in the last five years, hospitals, for example, have “shifted towards availability, integrity, things like the continuity of operations, and how to effectively design appropriate security architecture. It takes care of the data protection regulations automatically. Manufacturers created the whole ecosystem of the IoT medical devices to help drive visibility. But now the conversation is shifting to say, ‘Okay, we have enough decent visibility, we have enough of a profile behavior, let’s figure out how we can actually make that impactful where we can make decisions and take actions.’ Those are the pathways by which we’re seeing a lot of momentum.” As a result, Armis’ work is not only reactive but preventative.
“They’ve seen the havoc that attacks can have on the operation side of things, not just data. So at a board level, the industry has come together and said we can’t ignore this problem anymore.”
A proactive reaching out has also occurred in health areas, such as temporary hospital sites and the expansion of remote health services, such as telemedicine programs.
Who’s breaking into IoMT and healthcare?
There are two aims regarding hacking healthcare and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT): data theft and disruption. Thefts of personally identifiable information, protected health information, patient and research data are commonly associated with nation-state threat actors who sell data and personal information to the highest bidder. Disruptive attacks are underpinned by efforts to cause affray but also lead to financial gain through ransomware.
According to Sumit, at the heart of a hospital is its role as a business enterprise. “Nation-state sponsored targeted attacks go after critical infrastructure to disrupt the supply chain, logistical processes and clinical workflows. Have they happened? Yes. Do they happen every day? Yes, those kinds of campaigns occur. However, we’ve come a long way, in intelligence matters, as well. So generally, it’s difficult for them to avoid detection.”
COVID-19 creates new attack vectors for enterprising cyber criminals
We’re currently in the midst of one of the largest vaccine rollouts in recent decades. Cybercriminals take advantage of any opportunity. COVID has resulted in fake testing clinics, fake vaccines and a plethora of COVID vaccination scams. Supply chain attacks have seen attackers target the transportation and cold chain storage of vaccines. In April, IBM Security X-Force released research of phishing emails. Hackers targeted 44 companies in the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain across 14 countries.
According to Sumit, epidemiological research into COVID-19 is also prone to attack. Although released, vaccines are still undergoing ongoing research trials. Insights into the efficacy of vaccines or changes in the vaccine formulas are valuable. They can enable pharmaceutical companies to gain business advantages. There’s also incentivization from the hackers to say, “Hey, if I can get a formula, I can sell that downstream to have manufacturing occur by other parties.”
What’s the next cybersecurity challenge for IoMT?
Healthcare organizations have been swift to adopt cloud-enabled IoMT, meaning its distributed environment makes it harder to secure. Sumit believes the next threats will occur in implantable technology, nanotechnology, AR, and voice tech. “Security is not featured from an architecture perspective. We need to focus on figuring it out. There’s the triad of security: confidentiality, integrity, availability. We need to understand what integrity-based attacks will look like. We need to understand how they will impact connected devices and the way they function.”
The future of e-commerce: Trends, tips, traps to avoid
Amazon is approaching its 30th anniversary, set to mark the milestone in 2024. The World Wide Web hits 35 the same year. E-commerce, the buying and selling of goods and services over the internet, has grown up — and it has gotten big. Worldwide e-commerce sales for the retail sector alone exceeded $4 trillion in 2020, according to eMarketer. The research firm expects the figure to hit $5 trillion in 2022. Global B2B e-commerce sales, meanwhile, hovered around $6.6 trillion in 2020, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan.
As the value of e-commerce has risen, so has the complexity of online transactions. E-commerce today means more than simply processing electronic payments and enabling internet sales. It’s also more than knowing your customer, crucial as that is. E-commerce sales in 2021 depend upon the robust performance of just about every aspect of modern enterprises, from operations and supply chain to delivery services and customer loyalty programs.
Organizations must harness all the power of integrated back-office systems in tandem with intelligent customer insight systems to deliver personalized, seamless digital transactions that — in the lingo of the age — delight the customer. Personalized, seamless transactions must happen whether the customer is an individual consumer buying his or her first product, or a global business ordering for the 100th time under a multiyear procurement contract. Buyers demand as much — whether they’re ordering from their computer or their smartphone, via Alexa or through another connected machine.
“E-commerce transactions are becoming ubiquitous, and expectations are going up. People have expectations that it’s always going to be as easy as using Uber to get a ride,” said Mike Welsh, chief creative officer at Mobiquity, a digital consulting agency.
Amid rising customer expectations, however, many organizations are falling short on their e-commerce operations. A Gartner report on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on digital commerce predicted that “through 2020, 50% of large organizations will have failed to unify engagement channels, resulting in a disjointed and siloed customer experience that lacks context.”
The bar is high, said Lisa Woodley, vice president of customer experience at NTT Data Services. “E-commerce [covers] every stage, from acquisition to loyalty and advocacy. It’s your customers telling their friends, ‘I had a great experience; go do business with this company.’”
In this look at the future of e-commerce, we examine the evolution of buying and selling over the internet — from the early corporate websites that functioned as online brochures to today’s powerful, concierge selling sites that can be accessed through multiple channels. We offer expert analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on digital transactions, delve into the challenges enterprises face in meeting customer expectations in 2021, and provide detailed advice on overcoming those challenges.
From ‘product-centric’ to ‘solution-centric,’ e-commerce evolves
A combination of factors is driving the evolution of e-commerce. At the core is the internet.
Companies once mostly competed on the so-called four P’s of marketing: place, price, product and promotion. But the web’s search function and the internet’s reach neutralize one or more of these differentiating factors. Shopping online, a customer can easily get the same or similar product at the same or lower price with comparable shipping times and costs.
As a result, other factors are emerging as key differentiators, with personalization being the catch-all term for the new elements that drive buying habits in the digital realm.
“The concept of e-commerce is shifting from online sale transactions [and a] static webpage to a personalized and interactive experience,” said Eleftheria Kouri, a research analyst with the tech market advisory firm ABI Research.
“Customers have access to a wider range of capabilities when visiting an online store, including product virtual try-on and gaming and interactive storytelling concepts that increase engagement and educate the consumer about products [and] brands.”
Penny Gillespie, vice president at Gartner and a fellow in its customer experience/digital commerce team, said that in the e-commerce marketplace of 2021, companies must figure out how to deliver the product and the solution to a customer’s problem. To do that, they must understand the online customer’s intent.
For example, a retailer serving a customer searching for a black dress should be capable of using digital tools, as well as general and personal data, to understand that the shopper doesn’t simply need a dress but rather needs an outfit for an event. In fact, the color of the dress may in this case be irrelevant — with black dress being nearly synonymous with cocktail dress.
“Understanding intent is part of personalizing an experience,” Gillespie explained. A retailer that understands this concept can ensure the products in the search results actually match that customer’s needs, guaranteeing the sale of a dress and other relevant items (e.g., accessories) — and ensuring repeat business.
Customer intent is relevant in B2B transactions as well. Here, it could mean understanding a customer’s unique procurement process by, for example, automatically displaying any special prices specified by an existing procurement contract, facilitating any approval requirements, and anticipating needs based on past ordering histories.
“It’s a work in progress, with some sellers being much better at it than others,” Gillespie said.
In both the B2C and B2B spaces, online selling has gone from being reactive to being proactive and participatory, said Gillespie: “It’s a move from being product-centric to solution-centric.” She used the sale of an exercise bike online as an example.
“It’s not just selling an exercise bike online, but rather delivering it to the buyer’s house, setting it up and then helping them maximize its value through use,” she said. “The bike is a product; when it’s in my house and working, it is the solution.”
COVID-19 pushes companies and customers into the digital realm
The evolution of e-commerce from static webpages to interactive customer “solution” sites was enabled by sophisticated technology, but it took a global health crisis to make the future of e-commerce the new normal. The shift to online-everything in 2020 due to pandemic-induced social restrictions and quarantine orders pushed physical transactions into the digital realm.
According to findings from consulting firm McKinsey & Company, e-commerce as a percentage of overall retail sales in the U.S. grew 3.3 times more in 2020 than the average annual rate in five years before COVID-19. E-commerce sales as a share of overall retail sales grew 4.6% in 2020 vs. an average of 1.4% growth in previous years.
“Consumers are demanding more digital access than ever before,” said Nicole West, vice president of digital strategy and product at Chipotle Mexican Grill.
In November, the restaurant chain opened its first “digital-only restaurant,” the Chipotle Digital Kitchen, in Highland Falls, N.Y. The location offers pickup and delivery only, a prototype the company said will allow Chipotle to enter more urban areas that don’t support its full-size restaurant concept. The new restaurant requires customers to order in advance via Chipotle.com, its app or through third-party delivery partner platforms.
Providing an exceptional digital experience has become a priority for the 28-year-old chain, West said. She added that Chipotle is “relentless when it comes to UX and making it fast, easy and convenient” to place digital orders.
She cited the company’s 2020 rollout of Unlimited Customization. A feature in the Chipotle app and on the company’s website, it allows customers to customize orders, just as they do when ordering in person at a restaurant. Earlier in 2020, the company launched ordering on Facebook Messenger and a Group Ordering feature, which allows multiple people to participate in the ordering process simultaneously on the Chipotle app and Chipotle.com. And it’s now testing Chipotle Carside at 29 restaurants in California, an in-app feature that lets customers have their Chipotle orders delivered to their parked cars.
Chipotle’s digitalization efforts have shown real-world business value. Digital sales for Chipotle have grown 177% year over year, West said, and they accounted for 49% of sales in the last quarter of 2020. More than 19 million people joined the company’s customer rewards program via digital sales, West added, noting that the company’s digital pickup orders are currently its most lucrative transaction type.
There is no denying that the COVID-19 crisis and the at-home new norm have reshaped consumer behavior and boosted e-commerce/online shopping, which is expected to continue growing after the end of the pandemic, ABI Research’s Kouri said.
The technology powering these e-commerce trends also continues to evolve rapidly, Kouri noted, citing technological advancements in smartphones — such as high-resolution cameras and displays — enhanced connectivity, mobile-friendly websites and the rise of social media shopping.
Amazon, of course, has continued to make online shopping easier with innovations such as its Add to Cart and Buy Now buttons. The Home Depot and Lowe’s are often lauded for their use of instructional videos that give customers confidence to make purchases, as well as for apps that help customers navigate their stores. And the use of various technologies to let customers see how their items will look on them or in their homes before they buy is becoming standard practice.
From the customer’s perspective, Gartner’s Gillespie noted, the benchmark for all digital transactions is “the last great experience they had.” Keeping up with that moving target will require a panoply of technology and continuous technology innovation.
Although the internet was the enabling technology for e-commerce, it is far from the only technology needed to deliver the experience that customers expect now and moving forward. Some of these broad technology capabilities include the following:
- Customer-facing capabilities. Sites must be easy to navigate and user-friendly as well as quick and responsive. Sites should have the features that matter most to the target audience and be able to interact with other sites — social media sites for young consumers, for example, or company procurement systems for corporate customers.
- Data-related technologies. Organizations must be capable of collecting and using their own data as well as data from outside sources. This allows the organization to anticipate a customer’s needs even when it has little or no data on that specific customer; the company can use its other data sources to compile an understanding of what that one customer needs based on its interactions with similar customers.
- Automation technologies such as RPA. Robotic process automation can speed and streamline processes that service the customer by minimizing errors in data collection, enabling self-service by providing access to back-end systems.
- Customer journey orchestration engine software. This class of tools help organizations analyze real-time data of individual customers to predict future interactions with that customer, using predictive models, decision trees, matrix rules and machine learning.
- Augmented reality. AR lets customers bring products into real lifelike situations and virtually try on or fit items before purchasing. “The introduction of digital tools, such as augmented reality, in e-commerce platforms or apps not only assists brands to differentiate from the competition but transfers static websites/2D images to interactive and personalized experiences,” Kouri said.
- Artificial intelligence. Organizations can use AI to offer personalized online experiences. A cosmetics brand, for instance, could use AI algorithms to provide skin analysis and recommend suitable products.
- Back-end systems. Companies need modern infrastructure and current IT architecture that can support all these other capabilities. Typically, this means moving from legacy systems to cloud computing and SaaS applications to quickly enable scale and speed when needed; leveraging microservices to increase agility and flexibility; and breaking down silos through integration and the use of APIs. “There’s actually a lot more on the back end needed to reach our goal of making the front-end experience as seamless as possible,” Woodley said.
Specific tools, such as geofencing platforms that provide location-based services to help organizations and customers pinpoint their locations, and payment systems also have an important role in an e-commerce strategy, as do the technologies and processes companies use to optimize their warehouse and supply chain management.
“Building competitive e-commerce experiences requires the synergy of numerous technologies and tools, from AR to AI and secure payment systems,” summed up Kouri.
Bringing all these parts together to work consistently and flawlessly is, not surprisingly, a significant challenge.
“Personalization is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You really need to consider your business model, value proposition and customers before you create your strategy. Once those pieces are solidified, you can then begin to seek out the right tools and technologies needed to be successful,” said Britt Mills, senior director of customer experience at Mobiquity.
Organizations also need the data experts, technologists, marketing team, logistics workers, supply chain personnel and other executives and supporting staff who can competently contribute to that vision.
“Stores can rush to market with a new technology to enable customer safety and convenience, but they shouldn’t do so at the customer’s expense,” Mills said. Training employees to use the new technology is essential. “If your associates can’t support this new expected experience, your customers won’t be satisfied. It doesn’t matter how great the technology is.”
In addition, companies must have a strategy for dealing with emerging data use laws that put more control over personal information into the hands of individuals. And they must be able to mitigate against escalating cybersecurity risks.
These capabilities and safeguards are hard to achieve. Experts have acknowledged that the difficulty of developing and implementing know-your-customer processes — from collecting the necessary data to analyzing it to turning it into action items — has been oversimplified and glossed over in many conversations.
It’s not shocking, then, to learn that most organizations are struggling to develop the capabilities required to deliver seamless, personalized service, especially as the number of engagement and delivery channels have increased.
Research from Verint, a provider of customer engagement management products, found that 82% of the nearly 2,300 business leaders it surveyed said the challenges of managing customer engagement will increase in 2021, but only 50% said they’re well prepared to support customer engagement priorities moving forward. The vast majority of those surveyed pointed to nearly every aspect of customer engagement as challenging for their organizations, indicating the following problems:
- understanding and acting on rapidly changing customer behaviors (94% cited);
- managing the growth in volume of customer interactions (88%);
- achieving a unified view of customer engagement and overcoming data silos (79%);
- using customer feedback to improve experiences (78%); and
- building enduring customer relationships (77%).
Customer journey mapping
How do traditional organizations become as competitive in the digital sphere as they were in the brick-and-mortar heyday? It starts with mastering customer journey mapping, according to Peter Charness, vice president of retail strategy for UST, a digital technology and transformation IT services and solutions firm.
“[Organizations] need to ensure the digital journey is well aligned to a shopper’s needs, using a high degree of personalization and creating relevant interactions and conversations,” Charness said. He laid out six areas where organizations need to benchmark their capability:
- Interest generation. Determine how successful your organization is at getting potential customers to its website or store.
- Research and decision influence. Examine whether it’s easy for the user to find products of interest and “gather the information and confidence they need to move that product into a shopping cart,” Charness said.
- Decision confidence. From browsing to buying, companies should make it easy for the shopper to say yes to a purchase. “Organizations should have this part of the conversation with their shoppers and build their confidence to press ‘buy,’”Charness noted.
- Delivery/collection. “Speed of delivery (with ease of return implied) comes next, and the cost to deliver or collect a product becomes one of the most relevant associations any retailer will have to profitability and customer satisfaction,” Charness said. Assess your supply chain and fulfillment capabilities, and benchmark them to competitors and best-in-class companies.
- Post-sales service, resales and loyalty. “Your conversation with your customer doesn’t end with the shipment,” Charness Consider what else you can say to or advise your customer on to keep the relationship alive and productive.
- Personalization everywhere. “Put yourself in your shopper’s shoes, and play back the conversations you’ve had during the entire shopper journey,” Charness said. “Was it always relevant, interesting and useful? Or did you communicate with mass marketing techniques, treating everyone the same?” Develop a strategy for using AI and machine learning across “the end-to-end interaction chain” with customers to enhance personalized service.
The future of e-commerce
Many businesses have been on their e-commerce journey for years, adapting business processes to the customer predilection for digital transactions. However, few were well prepared for the rapid and wholesale shift to digital transactions driven by the pandemic. A record-breaking 11,100-plus stores closed in the U.S. last year, and 40 major retailers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to CoStar Group, a collector of retail real estate data. More stores are expected to shutter in the upcoming years, with some analysts predicting 100,000 stores — mostly apparel retailers — could close by 2025.
Yet, despite their struggles and challenges, many organizations are on their way to success. The awareness that challenges must be faced and addressed indicates that organizations understand that data-driven, personalized and secure customer transactions are the future.
How these transactions happen — whether online, via a mobile device, through some combination of digital and physical channels or by some augmented reality lens not yet imagined — will depend on circumstances and customer preferences, but they will increasingly involve digital technologies.
Indeed, Gartner has advocated replacing the term e-commerce with digital commerce to better reflect the convergence of all the digital systems that go into transactions today.
As customers increasingly decide that the frictionless experiences they have when buying online from leading digital vendors are the norm, the semantic distinction between e-commerce or digital commerce or any other kind of buying and selling transaction will disappear.
“When it’s all said and done,” Gillespie said, “we’ll just call it commerce.”
Argo AI Develops LiDAR to Advance Autonomous Delivery
The delays in getting autonomous cars on the road are mentioned often on this site. A “breakthrough” LiDAR technology developed by Argo AI could change all that. It means we could be seeing commercial autonomous vehicles on the road finally, making deliveries and offering side-sharing.
Argo LiDAR Technology
Argo AI introduced Argo LiDAR, which allows the technology to bypass the shortcomings that parked the ideas of autonomous delivery and ride-sharing until now.
Argo’s Self-Driving System (SDS) allows driverless cars to be aware of their surroundings – 360 degrees, day or night. Cars with Argo LiDAR are safe on city streets, suburban neighborhoods, and highways, according to the company’s blog post.
The breakthrough in the Argo AI LiDAR came about when Argo acquired a company developing long-range radar. The resulting LiDAR has a range of 400 meters. This allows dark objects to be detected, and ultra-high resolution perception allows for photorealistic imaging, which allows small objects to be identified.
“Argo Lidar takes us to a whole new level of self-driving technology, unlocking our ability to power both delivery and ride-hail services,” said Argo AI CEO and founder Bryan Salesky. “The Argo Self-Driving System delivers the safety, scale, and service experience that businesses want and their customers demand, especially coming out of the pandemic.”
Applications of the LiDAR Technology
The Argo AI blog post shared the advantages the new LiDAR technology could bring to commercial autonomous driving.
- Safe for use in cities, suburbs, and highways, allowing an easy connection to a warehouse.
- Scaled use in six U.S. cities and Europe will take place this year.
- Service between addresses in urban and suburban areas would help with deliveries.
Argo AI has partnered with Ford Motor Company and Volkswagen Group to develop commercially-available autonomous vehicles.
“We have unparalleled autonomous driving technology and operations capabilities,” added Salesky. “Proving out these abilities every day, across six cities, from our nation’s capital to Miami to Silicon Valley, we are ready to enable the next phase of growth for delivery, retail, and ride-sharing partners.”
The LiDAR sensor, as part of the Argo SDS, joins custom sensors to allow commercial autonomous cars to:
- See dark vehicles that reflect less than 1 percent of light, even at long range and at night.
- Navigate left turns into oncoming traffic with a 360° view.
- Transition instantly from darkness to bright light.
- Distinguish between small, moving animals and vegetation.
The Argo AI Hardware Development team is working with a manufacturer for production of the LiDAR sensor. The first to be
produced are being road-tested. There are plans with Ford and Volkswagen for widespread commercialization.
To show how long this technology has been in the works, read how Apple was working on it two years ago . And yet, it has no autonomous car on the roads.
Image Credit: Argo AI Newsroom
Can Smart Utility Infrastructure Be Safe?
The advent of new systems used to monitor and direct on-demand services via “smart” infrastructure has created a new level of convenience and reliability for both the providers and consumers of utilities. But while we’re in the middle of slapping automation into everything we use, has anyone asked whether this is a good idea at present?
Looking at the Vulnerabilities
On the surface, it almost always looks like a great idea to introduce software into systems that deliver services like water, electricity and gas to households. This is why we do it. Currently, there’s a worldwide movement to accelerate the provision of smart electric meters, water treatment automation suites, and several other innovations that help ease the burden of moving these things down the supply chain.
It makes sense and there appears to be no downside, but the writing is already on the wall that systems like these can be far more fragile than they seem.
Nothing illustrates this point better than an intrusion that happened in Oldsmar, Florida, on the 9th of February, 2021. A hacker breached the water treatment facility servicing this town of 15,000 residents and attempted to command the software to raise the level of sodium hydroxide (lye) in the outgoing water main to over 100 times the safe amount.
The only thing that stopped this incident from becoming a catastrophe with mass casualties was the fact that an operator was present the minute the breach was occurring.
The hacker was helped by the incompetence of the staff who used a TeamViewer password that was shared by everyone at the facility. This system in particular was straightforward, but what happens when we introduce greater levels of complexity that could present any number of vulnerabilities?
An analysis on smart electrical grids published on ScienceDirect by scientists from the UAE found several possible weaknesses in these infrastructures that could be compromised. Among them is, as they call it, “implicit trust between traditional power devices.”
Most smart grids are designed with the presumption that no foreign device will try to communicate with their receivers. This level of trust theoretically would allow anyone who can mimic the device “language” to spoof data and report false results to the facility from a remote location.
Beyond this, a lot of the hardware and software used by these grid operators can be easily bought and reverse-engineered, as they resemble what already is available to consumers. Because they’re also using the Internet, it wouldn’t be extraordinarily difficult to find a way to perform a large-scale distributed denial of service attack either.
Addressing the Challenges
The vulnerabilities present in the way smart infrastructure is implemented today can be broken down into two words: “human” and “design.”
The human aspect comes in the form of both the operators and end users receiving the services. Both – but especially the former – need to be educated on how to keep their systems and accounts safe. For instance:
- Change your password to something stronger than your birthday or anything that is simple to guess.
- Repeat the above process every few weeks or months.
- Don’t stick any foreign data device into a system that’s mission-critical.
- Avoid allowing systems that have data that doesn’t need to be on the Internet to connect to the Internet.
These four simple rules could have prevented the February intrusion in Florida, and they also shield from the majority of attacks.
As for the “design” aspect of smart infrastructure, companies providing essential services, such as utilities, must take into account how rigorously the devices they use have been tested. The primary concern must always be insulation. Can you send data to this receiver from a smartphone pretending to be a meter? If so, dump it. It’s better to be old-school than have new shiny systems that are built out of thin, rigid glass.
Do you have smart meters? What are your thoughts on potential intrusion by hackers on grid and water systems? Let’s discuss this below!
Internet of Trusted Things: Democratizing IoT
Who wins the Internet of Things? What company or demographic benefits most from that web of 30 odd billion devices that sit on dinner tables and cling to aircraft wings? Before we attempt an answer, let’s consider the stakes. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that humans might be sensory organs through which a God perceives the world.
Each human is independent, but we also contribute to a collective consciousness—like bees in a hive. Connected devices are independent, but together they could serve as global sensor organs comprising a vast digital organism. The question of who wins IoT could be the question of who controls this near-omniscient creature. And if so, how powerful could this new digital organism become?
IoT: More Dolphin Than Human
By 2025 the world will have 86 billion devices. A near tripling in the device web likely isn’t shocking given the endless commentary on the exponential growth in computing power (doubling every two years per Moore’s Law). But consider that humans have 86 billion neurons, while dolphins have 36 billion. Intelligence’s correlation with neuron count is weak. Still, something special happens when 86 billion neurons connect in a so-far inscrutable pattern to produce a self-aware mind capable of abstract thinking and writing articles like this one. Nothing against dolphins, they are famous for their mimicking and complex range of emotion, but they are way dumber than humans.
Right now, the Internet of Things is more dolphin than human. Connections are disparate and clunky, and connecting devices does not create automatic value like connecting people. Intelligence has to be connected for the conjoining to add value. But IoT is becoming more intelligent by the day. Edge computing—where Moore’s law empowers each IoT sensor with the computing power to make artificially intelligent decisions without relying on a central cloud hub—creates this intelligence. In the words of Stan Lee, with great power comes great responsibility. So we return to the question: Who controls IoT? In a world with 86 billion devices, each equipped with on-the-edge intelligence, the answer to this question concerns the future of humanity.
IoT is notoriously fractured. Countless use cases require domain expertise. As a result, no analogous winner takes all to the internet where network effects anointed masters in search (Google) and social (Facebook). According to Statista, at the end of 2019, there were 620 IoT platforms, including tech behemoths Microsoft and Amazon. Amazon controls a vast swath of the consumer IoT market: with several hundred million sold, there’s a good chance you own an Alexa device or a Ring doorbell camera (or both). But even Amazon only controls a tiny fraction of IoT. And a collective device intelligence vastly greater than the sum of its parts is disrupted by this fractured landscape.
A central problem with IoT’s current architecture is that users are forced to trust platforms, making consumers—whether they are Alexa users or corporate customers—wary of privacy violations and the potential abuse of their data for advertising anti-competitive purposes. IBM published a report in 2014 called “Device Democracy,” calling for a decentralized IoT solution supporting trustless peer-to-peer messaging, secure distributed data sharing, and a robust and scalable form of device coordination. It calls for blockchain to verify transactions, register devices, authenticate users, and broker trustless device consensus.
The blockchain allows manufacturers to wash their hands of devices once produced, allowing them to live and execute contracts autonomously. This unlocks untold value by empowering people to trade access to devices and their corresponding data seamlessly without having to trust a central authority. A new paradigm of the supply chain, financial, and industrial businesses can run on this connected web of decentralized IoT.
In a perfect world, cleansed of selfish intent and violations of trust, IoT would be a unified web of sensors and algorithmic insights proliferating into an emergent, data-driven intelligence that improves life for everyone. But the current business models and technical architectures are not designed for a global device ecosystem that works for everyone. Business models based on short-term profit encourage manufacturers and platforms to look at consumer devices as data-extraction tools which they can use to run better ads, for example. Blockchain and token-based business models can help realign incentives towards a utilitarian end by accruing value to open-source communities.
A trusted IoT, or an Internet of Trusted Things, needs to be built private-by-design and with peer-to-peer, blockchain-based device identity and coordination built-in. Once each device is de-coupled from a central authority, broad, decentralized coordination becomes possible. The Internet of Trusted Things looks like the vast intelligence we introduced at the beginning of this article. A central authority owning IoT is a horribly dystopian idea, and the current fractured landscape represents a defense mechanism against this future. If we are to achieve a unified IoT, there is only be one answer to the question, “who owns this new digital organism?” And it is the same answer to the question of “who wins IoT.” The answer is: you do.
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