When the ‘Internet of Things’ Attacks

Date: 30-08-2014
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Joe Queenan wonders: What happens when our devices have minds of their own?

Security experts are warning that the more home appliances get linked via the “Internet of Things,” the greater the possibility is of digital mischief or mayhem. If the wireless subwoofers are linked to the voice-activated oven, which is linked to the Lexus, which is linked to the PC’s external drive, then hackers in Moscow could easily break in through your kid’s PlayStation and clean out your 401(k). The same is true if the snowblower is linked to the smoke detector, which is linked to the laptop, which is linked to your cash-strapped grandma’s bank account. A castle is only as strong as its weakest portcullis.

But the most worrisome thing isn’t the possibility of having your short-term bond funds liquidated or your identity stolen. A more terrifying threat is a wave of maddening global nuisance-making carried out by entry-level terrorists or local teens who don’t appreciate your McCain/Palin 2008 car decal. Consider this scenario:
Your fridge is programmed to alert you when you need more milk. It may even be programmed to order the milk and arrange for delivery. Then hackers break in and reprogram the fridge to order thousands of gallons of banana-flavored soy milk every week. Or carloads of coconut water. Or immense quantities of goat cheese. Anything to bust your chops. Or maybe they program the fridge to lie about expiration dates, leaving you with curdled milk, rotten eggs and smelly, decaying asparagus. Thanks, Internet of Things! Thanks a bunch!

Here is another nightmare scenario. The Internet of Things has all your music linked from a server in the basement to a single upstairs remote control that connects to the home-entertainment unit. Suddenly your audio system won’t play anything but Il Divo. U2 is gone. Sinatra is gone. Brad Paisley is gone—and he took Miranda Lambert with him! Even the original-cast soundtrack from “Mamma Mia” is gone. It’s Il Divo, Il Divo, Il Divo, 24 hours a day. And you don’t even own any Il Divo recordings.

It gets worse. The radon detector keeps going off in the middle of the night, and every time it does, it activates the Il Divo recording. Your alarm clock starts lying to you about the time. Someone breaks into your Amazon account through the solar-panel controls in the attic and sends a dozen copies of Thomas Piketty’s book to your boss. Then your self-driving car up and drives away—to Venezuela.

Woody Allen, while still doing stand-up, had a very funny routine about appliances conspiring against him. One day, after he beat his television set senseless, the other appliances persuaded a talking elevator to take him for a terrifying ride up and down and then throw him out into the basement. The elevator also made an anti-Semitic remark. The routine was remarkably prescient. If appliances learn to think—a distinct possibility—a digital camera could secretly take photos of its owner cheating on his taxes and turn the incriminating evidence over to the feds. Voice-activated appliances could eavesdrop on conversations and testify against their owners at grand-jury hearings.

How can the Internet of Things be foiled? Drive an old car with no computer controls. Write down all of your passwords on a piece of paper and hide it in a ditch where your smartphone can’t photograph it. Cover all of your appliances with shrouds when preparing your taxes so they can’t rat you out to the IRS. Buy fresh food every day and stop using a refrigerator. And whenever you leave the house, turn off everything—heat, gas, electricity—so that the Internet of Things can’t go screwing around with your investments while you’re out having dinner. Take that, Internet of Things! That’ll show you who’s running things in this society.

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