What Last Week’s Internet Shut Down Really Means
The Internet of Things era is already here. It could take down our cities if we let it.
By Susan Crawford
Oct 26 2016
When a slew of websites couldn’t be reached last week, suddenly people across the US started paying attention to the Internet of Things.
It turns out that tens of millions of digital video recorders and other devices connected to the internet and protected only by factory-encoded, easily-brute-force-guessable passwords can be harnessed in the service of gigantic distributed denial-of-service attacks. When those devices were instructed to send huge numbers of messages to computers providing pointers to some very popular websites, the computers on the receiving end were brought to their knees—incapable of processing any requests.
Without the directional signs in place, suddenly huge numbers of sites couldn’t be found. Who knew the Internet of Things could have such a big effect on our daily lives?
Actually, a lot of people knew. IoT is very big business these days.
While we’re patching those insecure home DVRs, routers, and webcams, let’s back up and talk about the implications of IoT for public values generally. Because it’s not just websites that could be affected by unrestrained Internet of Things deployments. We’re not just using IoT in our homes. We’re also going to be using it, in a big way, in the places where 80 percent of Americans live, work, and play: in cities.
A lot of companies have been looking hard at the revenue potential for IoT deployments by cities. (ReadWrite now devotes all of its columnage to IoT, and reports that the “smart city” market will be $1.4 trillion by 2020.)
Although the hype is ahead of actual adoption, the number of conferences devoted to smart cities has exploded. That means that droves of vendors are pitching cities, looking to provide holistic ecosystems of sensors and software designed to understand and manage transport, energy, pollution, water, traffic, and other systems for which cities are responsible.
This is big: Cities are poised to privatize information flowing from the public right of way — data relating to streets, sidewalks, and uses of public infrastructure — without much policy work or consensus about what values they’re trying to serve.
That’s not to say that it will be easy to achieve consensus. The idea of “public values” is inherently squishy. It could include security protections that lower the risk of the the kind of mishap we saw (or didn’t see) last week—but there’s much more to it than that.