The Internet of Things or the Internet of threats?

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Despite the opportunities created by the Internet of Things, managing the accompanying complexity of networked devices will require tremendous amounts of interagency cooperation.

To technology companies, IoT stands for the Internet of Things. It’s one of the biggest opportunities in decades because it will allow organizations to use existing data to cut costs, better serve their customers, increase safety and convenience or create  new services.

But to many, particularly in government, IoT also stands for the Internet of Threats -- a new realm where “smart” lights could plunge building occupants into darkness unexpectedly or hackers could take over a moving vehicle. Entire critical facilities -- remember the Stuxnet virus? -- could be stopped cold. The list of problems the IT department, CIO and chief security officer must deal with mushrooms as devices are added to the network.

I am in both camps. On one hand, the value of having “things” gather information and take actions on our behalf is tough to dispute. Consider data center continuity. On average, a single minute of unplanned downtime for a U.S. data center can cost $7,900, and the recovery time can be an hour or longer. For many organizations, any sort of extended outage is unacceptable. IoT can help avoid outages by monitoring vital signs from power supplies and other devices and flagging trouble spots before problems hit.

IoT will also be instrumental in lowering costs and meeting regulatory goals. In the United States,  commercial buildings and facilities account for around 19 percent of our total energy consumption. That is roughly equivalent of the amount of energy produced by our nuclear power plants. Lights and air conditioners, however, often run when no one is around. By leveraging sensor data, some believe we could reduce that energy expense by 30 percent, keeping occupants happy and comfortable and conserving resources at the same time. It’s a tough combination to beat.

These savings, in fact, could be further increased over time by comparing two similarly situated buildings or performing a “black box” analysis to determine why savings were greater in one month versus another.

IoT will also play a fundamental role in enhancing the security and safety of citizens everywhere. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Buoy Center is a prototype of what future services could look like. NOAA has deployed 1,314 buoys in oceans worldwide that track humidity, wind speed and other indicators. That data is available just by clicking on a buoy on NOAA’s map, and there is even have a mobile app. It’s a tremendous resource.

Now imagine having networks like this for water grids or gas pipeline networks. Sensors could deliver real-time information about accidents or pinpoint where problems will likely occur to help dispatch crews. They could also be used to detect slow-growing problems, like chemicals seeping into water supplies. Data access could potentially prevent scenarios like the water contamination in Flint, Mich. Some systems can combine vibration, sound and visual data from sensors to better patrol restricted areas in facilities. This is situational awareness on a macro scale.

On the other hand, developing and creating systems that can accomplish these goals won’t be easy. A citywide situational awareness grid would require tremendous amounts of interagency cooperation. CIOs, CSOs and IT technicians would have to coordinate to ensure that data didn’t get marooned in silos.

Likewise, manufacturers will have to agree on standards. We’re fairly used to smartphones and personal computers that are compatible. Sharing a document with someone or getting onto a Wi-Fi network is relatively painless. But this is the exception and not the rule.

In the world of things, pumps might rely on different data formats than air conditioners, which speak a different language than security cameras. Data formats are the product of many components that the manufacturer must balance: the application, memory, processing power and available bandwidth, among other factors. They likely weren’t designed to communicate with each other. That needs to change.

Ultimately, we will need something like a data fabric that lets authorized staff share and see the most current information (or highlight just the information they need in the overwhelming tsunami of data) while keeping other would-be viewers out.

Perhaps more important, we will need a system that’s reliable. A system that fails at the critical time is worse in many ways than not preparing a systematic process at all. Technology has a way of lulling us into a false sense of security.  

Ready or not, IoT is coming, and we will need to proceed with our eyes wide open.

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