Business & Technology

IoT Cybervandals Rebooted My Kidney

By Daniel Dern | September 24, 2015

(Author's disclaimer: I originally pitched this as a humor piece, but the more I wrote, despite the light-hearted tone, the more serious I realized this is/was/will be.) 

In Chapter II of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Alice, having eaten a small cake labeled "Eat Me" but with no other instructions or advisories, finds herself growing so tall that she considers communicating with her feet by mail, using the address:

    Alice's Right Foot, Esq. 
        Near The Fender, 
          (with Alice's Love).

One of the many dimensions that the Internet has continued to, ahem, grow, is in the categories of doohickeys that connect, for a mix of monitoring and control. (The Internet has also extended into outer space, but that's another story.)

Networked household devices aren't new per se -- everything from elevators, vending machines and coffee makers have been attached to the Internet (or its precursor, the ARPAnet) dating back to the 80's and earlier, and, more publicly, 1990 saw then-novelty proofs-of-concept like The Internet Toaster and the Internet Stereo at the INTEROP '90.

Nowadays, we've got the "Internet of Things," connecting everything from thermostats, refrigerators, and air conditioners (not to mention security cameras, sensors, and alarms), to "wearables" monitoring our heartbeat, movement, temperature, etc., and "smart cars," to medical devices around and inside us, like scales, blood glucose monitors, cardio pacemakers, and Fantastic-Voyage-class sensors going... well, just going.

I'm not worried about how we will identify and name things in some sane but effective way, like "I am Joe's kidney, you are Jane's pancreas."

What does worry me -- and should worry you -- is the all-too-obvious cybersecurity risks of this all. I mean, somebody being able to surreptitiously, remotely activate the camera and microphone on your computer or mobile device is one thing. But this takes things to a whole new level.

O Connected New World, That Has Such Devices In It

These types of threats are hardly new. 

We have seen many in the headlines. For example, a 2008 news item, "Denial-of-coffee attacks affect networked coffee-maker" ... and here's an old list of "Internet-accessible Coke machines" going back one to three decades.

The last few years or so have brought us reports of automobiles being remote-started by hacked car fobs and by smartphones, of desktop and notebook computers whose cameras and microphones were hijacked, of the police and FBI asking for all new cars to include "remote kill switch" capability, and the like. 

And movies and TV shows (several episodes of The Good Wife come to mind) have featured cyber-savvy good guys and bad guys acting out -- not to mention that science fiction stories anticipated much of this, decades ago.

The point is, as more of our stuff -- including our innards -- gets "smart," there's more opportunity for beneficial application of technology -- but also large potential for mishap and mayhem.

Per my initial disclaimer, here's a few perhaps-funny-to-ponder-but-not-when-they-happen scenarios:

  • IoT Cybervandals Reboot My Kidney. Or worse, "crash" my kidney -- that is, something that controls key kidney functions -- and then, like the computer hard drive ransomware demands, want me to pay them up, if I want to resume using my kidney.
  • If you think that car-cams and bodycams will help ensure reliable "what happened?" reports, what about "continuous life recordings" automatically securely archived, as in Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy?
  • Your sweetie overrides your Viagra-class nanobots. And suddenly, Barkis isn't willin'. More widely deployed, this might be an interesting preventive...hmmmm.
  • See no whatever. When the signals from your eyes -- particularly bionic eyeballs -- are subject to interception and filtering, you may not see that man behind the curtain. Or other things. Or you may discover that your "eye/brain" feed is being tapped, like a webcam... without your knowledge.
  • Problem dieting, quitting smoking, etc? Now there really could be apps for that -- apps that, say, give you aversion microshocks. Or keep your fingers from taking that french fry or cigarette or beer. Or redacts bad choices from menus, buffet lines, etc. Or, per Damon Knight's sci fi novel Analogue Men.
  • Want to feel good without alcohol, drugs, etc? Go electric, with a droud that plugs into your brain (via a jack), in Larry Niven's sf story "Death by Ecstasy" -- or even wirelessly from feet or yards away, per Niven's Ringworld novel.
  • Not in the mood to go to the gym this morning? What if your FitsyBitsy-Plus gave you no choice? Or wouldn't let you punk out after only half an exercise session?
  • Trying to sneak ice cream into or out of the freezer? Not if your personal app and your freezer talk to each other. Get your spouse to do it for you? Maybe they can -- but your mouth and stomach monitors will quickly rat you out -- and email your doctor and workplace, to boot.

On the other hand, there are bound to be lots of good uses, like "Does this item of food contain anything I'm allergic to?" Or "Does this shirt go with these pants?" "Do I have enough clean socks and underwear to pack for my trip?" Or your car noting that your teenager is exceeding the speed limit. 

Let's hope that good security gets built in -- and that somebody finds a way to digitize "common sense" and "good judgement."

And that these devices don't develop their own sense of humor.