Every few years, my family takes a trip to Walt Disney World. After all, when you live on the East Coast and have two kids, it’s easy to make an excuse to visit “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” As manager of the NIST Cybersecurity for the Internet of Things (IoT) program (more on that later), when I think of the theme of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month this week, “Today’s Predictions for Tomorrow’s Internet,” my mind immediately goes to the Carousel of Progress.
There’s just something about that ride. I love the way it portrays how families remain the same even as the technology around them changes. The father can’t figure out how to work the voice-operated stove; the grandfather reminisces about how things were in the old days; and the mother and grandmother join forces with the children to tease them, only to be interrupted by the family dog chiming in about something.
And while all those things have remained the same, technology changes the context in which and the way in which we do them. Parents and grandparents still struggle to keep up and wish for simpler times; siblings still snipe at their elders and each other, but now they do so over social media or by text; and we can always check in on what and how the dog is doing via webcam, and even feed them, from our desks at work. It’s amazing just how quickly a previously unimaginable technology becomes indispensable. I can’t leave the house without my telephone/web browser/camera hybrid device—and, as if all those capabilities haven’t “simplified” things enough, my life is further enriched by all the apps my daughters tell me I can’t possibly be cool without, even though I sometimes don’t really understand why.
It seems like the Carousel of Progress is moving along faster and faster. You barely have time to come to grips with the latest pivotal advancement to really think about what could be coming next. While we don’t have a crystal ball, my fellow technologists and I at NIST (partners wanted!) look at what technologies are already on the market, anticipate where they might be going, and develop the necessary infrastructure so that tomorrow’s great advancements, and the benefits they promise, can confidently and safely be brought into being.
Meet the IoT
Remember “The Jetsons”? The cartoon imagined a world in which we had robotic help, smart watches, smart shoes, holograms, 3-D printing and drones. Except for flying cars that fold up into a briefcase and a few other things, these technologies of the future have arrived. In my own life, they’ve most notably arrived in the form of my virtual assistant. While not as personable or fully featured as the Jetsons’ housekeeper, Rosie—it can’t dust, for instance—it can turn on the lights, adjust the temperature and even tell me a joke.
Connecting these technologies to the internet enables us to process the data these devices collect and use that data to improve and make decisions about our lives. We call this internet-connected array of devices the internet of things (IoT).
While still in its infancy, the IoT is already collecting, processing and storing a staggering amount of data. On the macro level, IoT includes city-wide sensors that can capture large amounts of data that humans or automated systems can use to make decisions. Humans are really good at finding patterns, but the increasingly large amounts of data that we are collecting has outstripped our ability to process it. Computers, however, can be trained to discover the patterns in all this data and act on them. Assigning simple, routine activities to computers frees the rest of us to focus on those decisions that cannot be automated—yet!
Bumps in the road
What interests me most about IoT is what we can do with all that data. Case in point: Kansas City, Missouri, is developing a system that will use a combination of traffic, temperature and precipitation data to predict where and when potholes will appear. They will then use these predictions to schedule maintenance of these roads before the damage even occurs and avoid needlessly paving roads based simply on a rotating schedule.
While it’s not too difficult for us to imagine how traffic and weather might contribute to the formation of potholes, I predict that as IoT networks expand and computer algorithms become smarter, they will soon begin finding relationships among phenomena we don’t, wouldn’t and couldn’t even conceive as being related.
The possibilities are seemingly endless—and I’m excited to see just where our Carousel of Progress will take us over the next two, five, 10 and 20 years. Home assistants may become as commonplace as refrigerators, and perhaps even more like Rosie. We really may see efficient internet and GPS-connected self-driving cars using sensors and traffic data to get us safely from place to place, and much, much more.
While IoT is making and will continue to make our lives better and more convenient, it isn’t inherently secure. And that’s where we come in.
We help support the development and application of standards, guidelines, research and related tools to improve the cybersecurity of connected devices and the environments they’re used in. Together with our partners from government, industry, international bodies and academia, we’re working to understand the IoT-specific threat landscape, identify what standards exist and where the gaps are, and provide guidance for federal agencies to deploy IoT in a way that brings the greatest benefit while being secure, safe and privacy-preserving.
Now, I wonder what that dog is up to.