The Internet of Things (IOT)

In a past posting about the Internet of things, I joked about having connectivity – just for the sake of connectivity. There are, however, many reasons why it is beneficial to have electronic items wirelessly linked together. In fact, in my latest patent application for a roadway safety device, I am including an IOT feature to warn approaching motorists of an impending hazard through their cell phones. IOT has many useful purposes, but some that I still feel are solutions without a problem. I am writing this short piece because I feel that IOT, and Internet connectivity in general, is not very well understood by users. We have all heard the old saying, “a little knowledge is dangerous”. That is true when “a little knowledge” is shared by a person with a “little” understanding of the overall picture. When you find that you ask a general question to a person who should be an expert, and they spin you with jargon and extremely specific technicalities, in most cases that person may have limited knowledge and not much vision of the big picture. So, as one of my students at the prison where I last taught would say, “Let’s break it down”.

A network is a number of devices that are interconnected, and the Internet is a network of networks. It is as plain and simple as that! From a historical perspective, the Internet, first called ARPANET, was developed by Al Gore in the “cold war” period of our nation’s history, when the USSR and the USA had a military doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). (Of course, Al Gore had nothing to do with it, and my teacher humor is becoming very outdated.) Actually, just after the start of the Cold War, the research branch of the military, called DARPA, funded work by universities to design a communications network that had the ability to link as much of the continental United States as possible, even if parts of our telephone infrastructure were missing because of damage from incoming USSR nuclear missiles. The ARPANET was devised, which has evolved into today’s Internet. It is a mesh network where there are many different paths that could be taken to communicate between two points. Today’s Internet uses the mesh system to find the fastest paths, and bypass congestion. It sends the information in small packets of data and reassembles them in the correct order through a system called Internet Control Protocol (ICP). (You may have heard the acronyms TCP/IP involving the Internet.) When we type a Web domain name, such as dukish.com into our computer’s Web browser using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, or Google’s Chrome, the domain name must be translated to a destination number. The Internet does this by sending the request to what is in essence a large telephone book called a Domain Name Server (DNS), enabling you to connect to the web address using what is comparable to a telephone number – all done behind the magic curtain

In today’s Internet of things, each device that is connected need not have a domain name, but must have a numbered address similar to a telephone number. The Internet experts group devised a number system, called an IP address, where there are groups of four sets of numbers used to specify an internet device address (similar to the phone number), with each group of three decimal numbers separated by a dot. The smallest is 0.0.0.0 and the largest is 255.255.255.255. (Remember that computers, and therefore the Internet, use the binary system of ones and zero’s and not decimal numbers.) The total amount of distinctive address numbers is mindboggling. (In the future, however, with all of the new IOT devices coming online, this system may need to be expanded.)

The main point of this post is to say that an IOT device is nothing special. It is just a connected device, but there are a lot of them. When I was a young child, I was fascinated with being able to chat with my friends over Radio Shack CB walkie-talkies, now communication has evolved into being able to send information over a large worldwide network, which is basically a lot of digital walkie-talkies. The main problem with IOT, as it was back in the day, is that no communications system is 100% secure, and they can be jammed and hacked. Having served in the military, and without going into specific detail, there are measures that can be employed to jam, or to modify (hack) communications. There are also counter-measures that can be taken, but there are counter-countermeasures. And, I suppose there are counter-counter-countermeasures…

With human nature as it is, the issue we need to address when talking about connected devices on IOT is that we are not communicating with analog voice walkie-talkies, where malicious interference is merely a nuisance, instead we now have processors which have software programs that are communicating through the Internet and can be in connection with all other Internet devices throughout the world. Software is problematic in that it may be altered by a wide variety of mischief. Feel free to call me paranoid, but I remember the day in 2002, when an unknown creative hacker loaded a Trojan horse program on many thousands of Internet connected computers and set them to simultaneously, and repeatedly, look up IP (phone)  numbers from the dozen or so, DNS locations (phone books around the world).  That person’s antics basically brought the internet to a snail’s crawl on that day. Since then, many more DNS locations have been brought online, and antivirus software is now commonplace, but in 2016 someone repeated a similar trick using IOT devices to overwhelm the Internet DNS name to number system.

I submit in this article, that while there are many good reasons to wirelessly interconnect devices, sometimes it is unnecessary.  I will determine if I am running low on milk and eggs by looking inside of my refrigerator, and not use an IOT app from work to decide what food I need to have delivered, lest I wind up with a herd of cows grazing in my front yard when I return home. This is nothing more than my personal opinion. People can do bad things with good technology, and I don’t want cow poop in my yard, not to mention the chickens and eggs.

 

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