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Why the Internet of Things may never happen

Mike Elgan | Sept. 30, 2014
The Internet of Things is the grand idea of our time. Unfortunately, that vision may never become reality.

The spin behind this phrase is that the era of "things" on the Internet will go more or less like the era of computers on the Internet went.

There's no way that it will. It's a different world now.

The difference, of course, is that when the basic Internet standards were created, those standards were in the control of people who genuinely wanted universal standards equally accessible to all. You know -- engineers, scientists, programmers and system architects.

Nowadays, the Internet is in the control of corporations, each with a vested interest in using standards to gain an advantage, lock out competitors and make profits. It's also in the hands of governments primarily interested in keeping things open to surveillance or closed to new ideas through censorship.

In this version of the Internet, how are companies and governments going to agree on universal standards?

With the Internet of Things, standards are everything. Each device is supposed to broadcast to all other devices: "Here I am, this is what I can do, and this is how you can make me do what you want me to do." Without standards, they can't do any of this.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that by definition, Internet of Things devices are all very different from each other (unlike, say, PCs and servers, which are all very similar).

Many companies and organizations are trying to set standards. The major groups include the AllSeen Alliance, the Industrial Internet Consortium, the IPSO Alliance, the Open Interconnect Consortium and others.

But companies are coming out with hundreds of Internet of Things devices that are built with proprietary standards, and those companies are asserting that their standards are the ones that other companies should adopt.

There is no agreed upon set of universal standards in sight. Frankly, it's hard to imagine how this might come about.

Flaw No. 2: Security
This week, we were forced to confront the other fatal flaw of the Internet of Things: Security.

A new piece of malware called the Bash or Shellshock bug emerged.

To oversimplify the problem, there's a type of shell code called Bash (Bash is shorthand for "Bourne-Again Shell") that's used for command-prompt-like commands for Unix and Linux-based computers (including Mac OS X computers). Because of a flaw in the software, it's easy to slip malicious commands between legitimate ones and have them execute at the operating system level.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology said that on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being worst), the Shellshock bug is a solid 10. Plus, it's really easy for hackers to exploit.

Shellshock is easy to exploit because no authentication is required to add code. Hackers don't have to break in, steal a password or pretend to be an authorized user or admin. That also means that it's nearly impossible to know when something has been exploited.


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