Retail and the Internet of Things: when will the other elephant drop? [2 of 2]

Elephant

Elephant

So how are we feeling about the Internet of Things?

A recent mega-survey on the subject by the Pew Research Center revealed strong optimism, with 83% of respondents across several sectors agreeing that billions of connected, embedded and wearable devices talking seamlessly to each other and to our service providers will likely “have widespread and beneficial effects” by 2025.

It is admittedly hard not to get a little starry-eyed when the technological utopia promised by 80s sci-fi blockbusters hovers so near. Especially for marketers and retailers, for whom the possibilities, as discussed in Part 1 of this series, border on magical.

But a little caution is advisable. Actually, a lot of caution. As discussed, there are a few elephants in the room with the Internet of Things. With great power comes great responsibility, and so far, the tech giants who command the masses of data made available by connected devices have not precisely shown unerring judgment when it comes to treating their customers’ trust with care.

Developers, in the retail space as much as anywhere else, run the risk of being so feverishly intent on the sheer wonder of what they can achieve that they forget to consider whether they should achieve it, or indeed whether anyone wants them to.

A small-scale example was the recent blunder by London ad agency Renew, whic partnered with the City of London Corporation in deploying high street smart bins capable of tracking wi-fi signals from the smartphones of passing pedestrians and serving them targeted ads on digital screens. The agency announced that they were going to “cookie the street”, not realising that the notion would elicit outcry from privacy-sensitive Londoners. The municipality quickly bowed to pressure to pull the technology.

This and many other possible applications of IoT in the retail space — not least the fact that just about ANY space can be made into a retail space as a result — has engendered voluble discussion on the first elephant in the room: privacy.

We all know that when it comes to targeted advertising, opt-in is the new black. And as long as people in the marketing space respect that, consumers will doubtless lower their guard eventually, as they grow accustomed to the thousands of silent sensors just waiting to anticipate their retail needs. Unfortunately, this puts us smack in the path of the second elephant in the room: security.

The soft spots in our hot spots

As put by embedded technology specialists Wind River: “Given the pace of innovation today, there seems to be a general expectation that some entirely new, revolutionary security solution will emerge that is uniquely tailored to IoT – that we can somehow compress 25 years of security evolution into the tight time frame in which next-generation devices will be delivered to market.”

But of course, no such “silver bullet” exists. And just in the last couple of years, we have begun to see how vulnerable we are already making ourselves in the name of innovation.

In January 2014, security provider Proofpoint uncovered the first known large-scale IoT cyber attack, involving 750 000 malicious email communications coming from more than 100 000 IP-enabled consumer gadgets such as home router networks—and at least one fridge.

But forget spam. The inbox is the least of our worries. What about the outgoings we can’t control? As security vulnerabilities in everything from IP-enabled baby monitors to nosy Samsung TVs continue to make headlines, consumers excited about smart home technology like Google’s Nest should think twice about trusting their entire home lives to connected devices.

I’m not suggesting that companies like Google would part with consumer data on purpose.* But with all these Things proving so eminently hackable, the onus is on the developers of IoT technology to resist the temptation to be first to market, and rather concentrate on making it safe.

This brings us to the third elephant – governance.

The notion becomes almost pitiable as IoT innovation surges forward, while government bodies at every level struggle to formulate policy that can cope with the burgeoning privacy, security, and accountability issues it presents.

As mentioned in Part 1, it is encouraging that big players like Intel, Cisco, GE, IBM and AT&T are getting their heads together to set about standardising global IoT protocols. If the giants can open the dialogue to government, and collaborate with an eye to maximum caution as well as maximum cash, we might stand a chance of seeing the stars align to the benefit of all by 2025.


*(…Again.)

Image: Christian Baltrusch via Flickr.

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