Friday 26 July 2013

Instrumenting the kettle

Exclusive: sometimes there is a difference between fiction and reality.

Steve Hewlett is presenting a report at the moment on BBC Radio 4, Privacy Under Pressure. Three episodes, Episode 2 was on Monday 22 July 2013, final episode next Monday, don't miss it, 9 a.m.

Everyone remembers Minority Report, the Tom Cruise film where the murder rate has dropped to zero because the "Precrime" unit intervenes before anyone commits a felony.

What is the use of the internet of things? That's what Steve Hewlett.wanted to know. And there was our very own Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt to tell him.

You remember Sir Nigel. He's head of the Open Data Institute. And midata. He's the one who thinks that the economy will grow if we give all our public and personal data to innovative app-designers. Him and Stephan Shakespeare. Although neither of them can usually think what these apps might do to be useful and profitable.

And you remember the internet of things.That's when you connect every device in the world to the internet and then monitor them.

Worked a treat for the US Chamber of Commerce. They thought they were controlling the central heating in one of their flats remotely. In fact, the thermostat was busy sending stolen data to the Chinese: "months later, the chamber discovered that Internet-connected devices — a thermostat in one of its corporate apartments and a printer in its offices — were still communicating with computers in China".

All this remote monitoring is a bit intrusive, isn't it, said Steve Hewlett but Sir Nigel reckons not. He says that by "instrumenting" the fridge you'll be able to tell remotely that an old person is eating properly. "Elder care", he calls it. And if you see the kettle being turned on, you'll know that the old person is having a cup of tea.

Sir Nigel has obviously never met an elderly relative of DMossEsq's who, in his dotage, every time you served him dinner, carefully picked it up and put it in the dishwasher – to a remote "elder carer", no doubt that would mean he was doing the washing up.

A lot of people on Steve Hewlett's programme keep saying that the benefits of surveillance are undeniable, it would improve the quality of life, it's very positive. There's one old-fashioned lady who says that permanent surveillance will lead to permanent self-censorship, but what does she know?

Is it worth giving up our privacy just so that we know without taking the trouble to go round in person that some old wrinkly has opened the fridge?

Sir Nigel tackled this question head on. Here he is, delivering the coup de grâce to any demented naysayers. Just imagine, he says, a new world where you look out of the window and see the blue flashing lights, and then someone flies through the door and says "we're here to prevent you from having a heart attack".

That's Sir Nigel's charming picture of the new world he's trying to create. Or intelligently design. "Precare", anyone?

Sir Nigel has obviously never met Steven Grisales. And he's not going to meet him, because Steven Grisales is dead. He was murdered by a 15 year-old who was out on parole probation and evaded surveillance by the simple act of removing his electronic tag.

The story is told by Dominic Lawson in the Sunday TimesClarke plays a deadly game of tagging, 17 June 2012: "Last Wednesday Liz Calderbank, the chief inspector of probation, released a report on electronically monitored curfews, which deserves that overused term 'devastating' — it revealed that 59% of tagged offenders are known to have breached the terms of their curfew".

Perhaps in next Monday's episode Steve Hewlett will settle the question whether the benefits of giving up our privacy really are indubitable. Will the future look like Sir Nigel's idyllic dream? Or will it be more like the squalid nightmare which is surveillance today in the UK, as revealed by Liz Calderbank?


Updated 4.8.14

iKettle: The Wi-Fi kettle review

Hat tip

Updated 24.10.16

"Global internet outages continue as second wave of hacker attacks cripples web servers" – that's what it said in the Daily Telegraph newspaper last week, with more than usual first-hand experience: "Hundreds of popular websites were taken offline for hours on Friday after a critical internet point was hit by multiple cyber attacks ... Hackers brought sites including Twitter, eBay and The Telegraph offline for millions of users after targeting Dyn, a New Hampshire-based company that is responsible for routing internet traffic".

ElReg provided some technical detail. It seems that a lot of dumb devices attached to the internet of things (IoT) were used to launch an onslaught on this company Dyn. Devices including the WiFi kettle above, possibly. Apparently it's terribly easy to do and the caper may have been undertaken by bored children.

Messrs Shadbolt and Shakespeare (please see above) may have their enthusiasm for the IoT undimmed by this episode. You may think differently, though. If bored children knock out the Government Digital Service's GOV.UK Verify (RIP) next time, and if you foolishly rely on that underwhelming identity assurance scheme, then you will cease to exist.

Updated 21.1.17

RIP: Steve Hewlett: Radio 4 presenter dies at the age of 58

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