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Back in the early 1990s, I came across a story about a Coke machine that you could query from anywhere on the Internet and it would tell you the temperature of the drinks, the last time it was stocked and how full it was.
The machine was in the computer science department of Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. Computer programmers live on caffeine but who wants to walk all the way to the machines only to find that they’re empty or the contents are warm?
These days, a multitude of devices created by programmers and hardware designers similarly benefit our lives. Everything from smartphones to social media to home computers to your fridge to your car, and from home security to your furnace.
This is the future – the Internet of things or IOT – in which the items in our lives communicate and share information with other everyday things.
Today’s security systems will notify you via an app on your phone of the status of your home – without paying for pricey monitoring companies. Video cameras can be rotated by the app to allow you to view your house from various angles while you’re away.
You can lock and unlock doors remotely and similarly adjust the temperature in your home. You can turn lights on and off, check to see if you left your oven on make certain you locked your car.
And all of these conveniences – and more – will only become more prevalent as the technology becomes more affordable. The progression to the fifth generation of cellular technologies (5G) will allow even more data from more sources to be exchanged.
Cars will exchange information with traffic control centres, allowing authorities to respond to slowdowns and accidents more quickly. Those traffic control centres will direct cars (self-driving or otherwise) to take alternate routes when needed.
Medical devices already communicate wirelessly. Machines used to treat sleep apnea can be accessed by professionals to monitor the user’s sleep quality. Pacemakers and insulin pumps can track the history of events and have the information downloaded for review.
As we continue to improve and shrink devices, as well as communicate robustly with them, we’ll be able to solve a multitude of health issues. The potential is immense.
But – and there is always a but – there are serious questions about malfunctions, privacy and security.
Should employers or insurance companies be allowed to review our driving history, as recorded in our cars? Should they be allowed to review the logs of our sleep apnea device to determine how often we fail to use it, or our pacemakers to determine our current health conditions?
Who will ensure such devices have been tested thoroughly? Who will ensure our privacy is protected? Who will ensure these devices are secure and can’t be breached?
Ultimately, it’s up to us to ensure that governments do enough to protect us. We need to demand our rights and safety are protected through laws, not just by the manufacturers.
Insulin pumps have been recalled because of weak security. Some pacemakers contain security flaws that could result in tragedy; they too have been recalled.
Ultimately, we’re all responsible for the devices we use. But we can’t be expected to know or understand how everything works. So we rely on others, from doctors to salespeople. They in turn rely on information from manufacturers and certifying agencies.
We need to ensure that this information is as accurate, and as thoroughly tested, as possible. I would hate for my car to crash as often as my computer.
Eamonn Brosnan is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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