Governing the internet of things

In light of increasing coverage about the internet of things (IoT), it is not surprising that sovereign governments are paying attention and introducing initiatives to try to understand and take advantage of / benefit from the immense promise of the IoT. Despite the hype, it is probably too early to worry about how to govern such a potential game changer, or is it?

According to Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, the internet of things is hovering at the peak of inflated expectations, with a horizon of some five to 10 years before reaching the ‘plateau of productivity’ as an established technology, so still fairly early days as yet, it would seem. However, that is not sufficient reason to avoid discussing governance options and implications for what is arguably the most significant technology development since the dawn of the internet itself. To this end, I attended a recent keynote seminar on policy and technology priorities for IoT (view the agenda), and below are some of the key points I took away from the event:

  1. No trillion IoT devices anytime soon -  According to Ovum’s Chief Analyst the popular vision of ‘a trillion IoT devices’ will not appear overnight, for the simple reason that it is difficult, and will take some time, to deploy all those devices in all manner of places that they need to be.
  2. What data avalanche? - Although a lot of data will be generated by the IoT, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the proportion of meaningful information will depend on the cost to generate, store and extract useful information from the petabytes of noise - there is a lot of scope for data compression. For example, the vast majority of data from say environment sensing IoT devices will likely be highly repetitive and suitable for optimisation.
  3. Regulatory implications - OFCOM, the UK’s data regulator, identified the four themes as most relevant for the future development of  IoT, i.e.: 1. Data privacy (including authorisation schemes); 2. Network security & resilience (suitable for low end devices); 3. Spectrum (e.g. opening up 700Mhz band and other high / low frequency bands for IoT); and 4. Numbering & addressing (need to ensure there is enough numbers & addresses in the future for IoT).
  4. Standards and interoperability - these remain key to a workable, global internet of everything (IoE) particularly because of need for data availability, interoperability (at device and data level), and support for dynamic networks and business models.
  5. Legal implications - again the key concern is data privacy. According to Philip James (Law Firm Partner at Sheridans), in describing the chatter between IoT devices: ‘hyper-connected collection and usage of data is a bit like passive smoking - not everyone is aware of it’.

In context of the above observations, it may be easy to ignore the elephant in the room, i.e. how to manage unintended consequences from something as intangible as the future promise of IoT? What will happen if and when the IoT becomes semi-autonomous and self reliant, or is that science fiction?

Well, I wouldn’t be so sure, because it all boils down to trust: trust between devices; trust in data integrity; and trust in underlying networks and connectivity. However, this is not something the internet of today can provide easily, therefore some interesting ideas have started percolating around scalable trust and integrity. For example, Gurvinder Ahluwalia (IBM’s CTO for IoT and Cloud Computing) described a scenario using hitherto disruptive and notorious technologies (i.e. Blockchain and BitTorrent, of Bitcoin and Pirate Bay fame respectively), to create a self trusting environment for what he calls ‘democratic devices’.

The implications are astounding and much closer to the science fiction I mentioned previously. However, it is real enough when you consider that it requires a scalable, trustworthy, distributed system to verify, coordinate, and share access to the ‘things’ on the IoT, and that key components and prototypes of such a system already exist today. This, in my opinion, is why sovereign governments are sitting up and taking notice, as should all private individuals around the world.

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About the author
Jude Umeh is a member of the UK's Sector Consulting Group in Capgemini's global Telecom Media and Entertainment (TME) community. His areas of expertise include: music, media and digital rights management; and he contributes to thought leadership development and delivery of solutions and services to the stakeholders in these fields. Jude is the author of The World Beyond Digital Rights Management.

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