IoT, Crypto: can we balance power with accountability?
There’s a scene I’ve come to think about lately from one of my favorite movies, Spielberg’s 1993 science fiction classic Jurassic Park.
In an early third of the film, the brilliant mathematician Ian Malcolm is debating billion-dollar mogul and park creator John Hammond during the ill-fated group’s initial tour of the prehistoric island. Malcolm, among others, expresses his doubts about the risk inherent in pushing nature’s limits through technology.
“Yeah,” he says, conceding the success the park’s engineers have had in genetically replicating dinosaurs, “But your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The quote comes to mind when I think about what the tech industry has managed in only the past half-decade with IoT devices, and cryptocurrency’s parallel growth. At this point, a merger between the two industries seems inevitable. There’s just too much money to be made, and people are quite justifiably excited for both.
And while I don’t think we’re in danger of being overrun by physically elite packs of velociraptors or Spielberg’s towering, bellowing, T-Rex anytime soon, it pays to ask the question as a responsible member of the tech trade: for all of our growth in both the IoT and Crypto sectors, have we given proper thought to securing them?
I recently highlighted some of the challenges facing IoT devices moving ahead in a related piece “Bitcoin, IoT and digital currencies: Jason Hope asks, will they last?“. I’ll recap them briefly here.
There’s been a rise in the past 24 months in attacks via botnets, by which a device is added and manipulated to carry out malicious attacks. IoT utilities containing sensitive data are particularly attractive to hackers. Essentially, the very aspects that make IoT devices special – convenience, that they’re small and easy to use, and able to store data – are also a sort of Achilles heel. To date, developers have not created many devices able to sustain the computing power necessary for advanced encryption. It’s a security risk, simple and plain.
Cryptocurrency, as well, for its billions in value, has been the subject of much scrutiny. Just recently the industry – Bitcoin in particular – was slammed by JP Morgan Chase & CO CEO Jamie Dimon: “It’s just not a real thing; eventually, it will be closed,” he said, going so far as to guarantee that any workers in his employ would be fired for trading it. “(Conventional) currencies have legal support. It will blow up.”
Let me acknowledge first that it makes sense for a conventional banker to voice doubts about digital currency – what would he stand to gain from its growth, anyway? But he makes a few good points as well (read the entire article here https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/12/jpmorgan-ceo-jamie-dimon-raises-flag-on-trading-revenue-sees-20-percent-fall-for-the-third-quarter.html), particularly the latter statement about legal ramifications. If someone steals your Bitcoin, or Ethereum, will you enjoy the same sort of protection as you would in dealing with Wells Fargo?
It’s a worthwhile question to ask, given that last April the value ($1,268 at the time) of one unit of Bitcoin for the first time surpassed that of an ounce of gold. That’ll get (and has gotten) any financier’s attention.
Crypto supporters point to the nearly decade-long success of the Blockchain, an online digital ledger which tracks and notates digital transactions in real-time. The logic behind it is that – barring the existence of one central, corruptible, database – the system itself is inherently secure; it’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. To this point, its incorruptibility has been evident – so much so that those on the IoT front have themselves considered applying the technology toward data-laden devices.
Though experimental forays in applying Blockchain to IoT have been made, it would pay for IoT manufacturers in the meantime to protect their consumer’s interests. Digitally signed and encrypted firmware should be an industry standard. Computer and cell phone operating systems receive regular software updates; why wouldn’t you set forth the same expectation for a quality IoT product? In a mad rush to produce as many units as possible, some manufacturers seem to have lapsed in this responsibility.
Those at the industry forefront who’ve highlighted numerous concerns with both Crypto and IoT have hardly hindered investment in either – the overall value of cryptocurrency has been estimated to be as high as $100 billion, while IoT will be worth billions by 2020.
I don’t count myself among the detractors, either. If you’ve read my blog you know by now my enthusiasm for IoT’s growth, in particular. Indeed, it’s an exciting time to live in the world of Tech, and when Tech and finance intersect – as they tend to do – it’s a big deal for everyone.
Still, it remains our responsibility as stewards of this age to ensure that those who believe in our advancements have their good faith honored. There aren’t lives at stake (as dinosaurs go) just yet; it’s simply the right thing to do.