Tales from the Hackable Connected World

Fabio Chiusi
September 2017
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Imagine the forecasts are right. It is 2025, and the world contains some 100 billion1 “smart”, connected devices. The dream of Silicon Valley has become true: the so-called “Internet of Things” is no longer promise, but everyday reality.

Now imagine Jim is an early IoT-adopter, a model user and citizen in this latest technological revolution. What’s his life like? Sensors collect, store and analyze his every move through wearable devices and his smartphone, so that calories intake is finely tuned on energy consumption, his heartbeat is under constant check, and of course he can enjoy the best deals from the shops in the surroundings — offers just pop-up as notifications on his fashionable, geolocalized, augmented reality glasses.

Cars self-drive him on “smart” roads, effectively gathering all kinds of data about his commute; thanks to real-time traffic analysis, it is invariably the quickest possible route home, and he can just sit back and relax while chatting with friends and sending heart emojis to his loved one. Once he gets there parking is not a problem, as the car has already learnt from its Big Data-led artificial intelligence which spots are free.

After a quick eye-scan at the front door, Jim is greeted with the exact amount of heating and lighting he desires, while one of his favorite songs starts playing — without him having even asked — thanks to the virtual assistant that crunches his preferences and turns them into personalized comfort. The fridge is not empty — as it never is — because it is capable of recognizing, notifying and even buying missing groceries by itself. Look, a drone is just about to deliver fresh fruit, vegetables, milk and all the necessary ingredients for the soup he loves, right on time!

After a properly balanced lunch, the result of the lifestyle personalization suggested by health-tracking connected applications, the smart citizen can finally thank the AI, sit on the sofa and play some smart tv programming, while his kids enjoy the company of their new smart toys, with which they can converse about their interests and hobbies as with a real, caring friend. “You should drink a glass more of me”, says the smart bottle of water on his lap; “you should go to bed now”, adds the virtual assistant in his pocket a few minutes later: it knows tomorrow morning Jim has an early meeting, and if he doesn’t get enough sleep he won’t be performing at his best. “At least I won’t have to be driving the children to school”, he thinks to himself just before closing his eyes, “as my car will, by itself”.

Is this not-so-distant future envisioned by Silicon Valley heaven or hell? At the surface, it undoubtedly looks like the former. Technology understands what you think, and enables you to realize it before you even asked. Everything is efficient. Everything is comparable, and therefore subject to “empowerment”. And everything is easy, “frictionless” — as social media theorists used to say before realizing the sound of it was really, really bad.

But there’s no hiding that this utopian Tech-heaven could easily turn into the latter, with just a few scratches. Leave the socio-anthropological and philosophical objections to Jim being reduced to its “quantified self2” aside for a moment. Let’s say there is nothing inherently inhuman or dehumanizing in having every aspects of one’s life tracked, datified and ultimately judged and driven by (opaque) algorithms.

We would still have to grapple with one critical feature of connected devices: their cybersecurity. Are they safe? Can they actually preserve the immense amount of data they generate, and keep them from unwanted scrutiny? Thanks to the age of smart, connected devices Jim’s life has never been easier, his activities more efficiently managed, his body healthier: but does this entail the end of his privacy, together with a form of constant surveillance which is unprecedented even now, in the post-Snowden era? And could a society of Jims be a dream society, a utopia for the XXIst century or is it more aptly described as a fitting, contemporary dystopia?

Answers to such questions crucially depend on how cybersecurity will be implemented into the “Internet of Things” — a convenient catchphrase which can be better defined as the “emerging network of devices (e.g., printers, routers, video cameras, smart TVs) that connect to one another via the Internet, often automatically sending and receiving data3”.

The aim of this essay is to show that, absent a revolution in the security of IoT devices, the life of Jim - and all of the Jims in the world - will look like hell much more than heaven. Because as things now stand, the IoT is easily hackable, and easily hacked. And when everything is connected, this means that our entire lives are too.