The Internet of Things: Reflections on the Opportunities and Risks

March 17, 2018

by Alicia Asín, CEO of Libelium

The potential for innovation and growth that IoT brings to any sector and, in particular, to smart cities is undeniable. We are experiencing the transition into a new era connecting the physical world to the digital world. our vision of an intelligent world, with sensor- lled cities, allows us to imagine more ef cient, habitable, safe and resilient towns thanks to the new digital era.

In terms of bene ts, smart city technology is helping to improve citizen security, increase the efficiency and management of public infrastructure and promote transparency in government decisions, among many other advantages.

There are many real examples in many cities around the world that are developing projects with Libelium technology for different purposes such as monitoring pollution, identifying free parking spaces or controlling the environmental quality of roads, to name just a few examples. In all of these cases, technology is helping to promote transparency in government decision making and thereby enhance democracy.

If a public official can collect real data on the city’s pollution rates that support his decision to restrict traf c, he will be able to better communicate to citizens the reasons behind this action. In this way, citizens will be able to evaluate the merits of the decisions taken about their lives and their communities based on supporting data, rather than mere opinion.

Up until now, the way we have judged our politicians is highly conditioned by their statements or those of their opponents. However, in an interconnected world, where citizens have open and contrasting information about their city, this judgement can be more objective. Furthermore, citizens will bene t from the improvement in their quality of life thanks to applications that develop mobility within cities, such as intelligent parking systems. Other bene ts will result from technologies that improve safety by detecting the environmental quality of roads and highways, or that guarantee the quality of the air they breathe, or indeed the water they drink.

On the other hand, we need to temper this very positive view of the benefits of IoT with due consideration of the risks to the individual and society associated with the ever increasing use of digital technology. For example, the apocalyptic vision brought about by the Wannacry virus attack shook many people’s views of the technology. The virus not only affected more than 200,000 computers around the world but companies worldwide had to stop their business activity: among those affected, FedEx interrupted the delivery of goods in the USA, European energy companies collapsed and the machines selling train tickets in Germany stopped working.

We must recognize that security is becoming an inherent risk of IoT. The reality is that as the number of Internet-connected devices increases, the risk also raises exponentially. The forecast is that by 2020 we will have 6 objects per person connected to the Internet, which means 50 billion devices in total.

But the risk associated with having so many devices connected to the Internet and the potential for compromising them is not the only issue. The risks to personal identity and security of personal data are also of great concern, as evidenced by the NSA scandal when personal information was stolen and thousands of users were spied on. As a result, German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, swapped her iPhone for a Blackberry to protect her privacy. She is the only person I know of who decided to do this. But the question is, do you need to be the German chancellor to worry about your privacy and security?

If we are honest, we currently consider privacy to be a secondary issue if we can get something in return. In fact, there are insurance companies that are offering premium policies if you allow them to install a device in your vehicle that measures the risk level of your driving style. But, at the same time, by signing the contract, you’re selling the information about where and when you go everyday.

The same applies to smart TVs. Everyone has one at home but no one reads the 40 page privacy policy that is included in the user guide. And we should read this, because there are warnings such as “do not say anything confidential in front of your TV, you could be recorded”. In the end, however, for many people convenience trumps privacy. When we speak about the importance of protecting privacy, we need to be honest with ourselves because by our actions and choices we are relegating it to secondary importance.

Complicating matters further, we all have our own opinion about the risks associated with the security of our electronic devices, the privacy of our personal information, the information we are exposed to, or the impact of robots on employment. In many cases these opinions may be in stark conflict with each other.

For example, in a survey conducted by a brand of self-piloting vehicles to potential customers, the majority said they preferred safety systems that prioritized pedestrians; but those same people also said they were not interested in buying that car if it was programmed with that algorithm.

In other words, we have a dual view of technology because of the speed with which the technology is changing, as are its uses and applications. Many of us are struggling to adapt and to balance the risks and opportunities presented by new applications of technology. Thus, if a country restricts the use of drones, it will be preventing terrorist attacks but also restricting the potential use of these devices for sending humanitarian aid.

In summary, digital technology is a tool that has brought about enormous benefits to mankind, including by stimulating economic growth, creating jobs, increasing demand, improving production processes and stimulating the creation of new business models.

The alternative, for anyone who believes the risks of the digital revolution outweigh its opportunities, is to retreat from the modern world – without risks, without worries, but of course, also without access to the Internet and its benefits.

If, on the other hand, we embrace IoT and focus our energies on how to manage the risks involved in its application, we will undoubtedly ensure that the legacy we leave from this digital revolution will be one of great progress and well- being for everyone.

Alicia Asin is leading the change behind IoT at Libelium, which provides the tools that solution providers need to connect sensors on industrial IoT-enabled devices to the cloud for applications like factory automation and automotive use cases. Asin has helped Libelium build out its Meshlium product – which connects sensor networks to the cloud – and has worked to focus in on smart city solutions.

Alicia Asín is the CEO and co-founder of Libelium, a Spanish IT company that has created “Waspmote”, a wireless, modular and open source sensor hardware platform for the Internet of Things (IoT). Alicia is a computer engineer focused on how the IoT can change our world, starting with Smart Cities and Precission Agriculture, among other applications.