The Internet of Things makes strange — and worrying — connections

From cat litter trays to cars and dolls, some unlikely items are online and raising security concerns

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Being inclined to sloth, especially at weekends, I love being able to turn on my kettle via an app from the comfort of my bed or the sofa and have it keep the water at the perfect temperature until I am ready to get up and walk to the kitchen to make coffee.

Smart kettles, fridges that keep tabs on when the milk is going off, tweeting catflaps, connected keyless locks that let your cleaner in but keep your mother-in-law out — the internet of things (IoT) is, as they say, most definitely a thing.

The basic idea is a great one: give a device the ability to collect data and metrics, to work with other devices and to be able to connect to the internet and you can turn an ordinary item into something much more useful.

It is an exploding market. Last November, technology research group Gartner predicted that there would be 6.4bn connected devices this year — a rise of 30 per cent on 2015 — with 20.8bn devices expected to be in use by 2020. Other estimates are even bigger. Juniper Research said last July that it expects there will be 38.5bn connected devices deployed by 2020. IDC, the consultancy, said in June that the global IoT market will be worth $1.7tn by 2020.

But what precisely are all these connected devices? In the consumer space, they range from the moderately useful and just plain fun to the thoroughly ridiculous and pointless. There’s the Kisha umbrella, for example, which comes with an associated app that will alert you if you walk out of a restaurant without it. If you do leave the brolly behind, you will be able to track its whereabouts on a map, while the app will also helpfully let you know if rain is forecast. Alternatively, you could continue buying cheap umbrellas that you won’t mind losing.

For us ailurophiles, there is Tailio, a $199 device you put under your cat’s litterbox that measures your furry housemate’s visits to the box and collates the data into information about its habits and weight, which are then run through a cloud analytics platform to produce reports you can share with your vet. And of course it is controlled by an app, which will also remind you that it is time to clean out the litterbox — assuming your nose doesn’t do so first.

Meanwhile, Samsung said in September that all of its devices, including TVs and washing machines, would have IoT support by 2020. Cosmetics group L’Oréal said, also in September, that it was exploring the idea of connected makeup. Yes, really.

Whether connected lipstick comes to pass or not, such devices will of course be brilliant for manufacturers who want to collect data about how we use even the most quotidian items, but less so for those of us who would prefer not to deliver ever more detail about our lives. However, IoT devices have made a significant difference in industry and agriculture, helping to manage supply chains and machinery more efficiently.

Farmers are using smart sensors to keep tabs on farm machinery and buildings, track livestock and manage fields in minute detail. One such system, from SAP Digital Farming, uses sensors to track water and nutrients in the soil, allowing the farmer to zoom in on tiny parts of a field and adjust watering and fertilising accordingly. The system can send those details to farm workers, while sensors on farm vehicles can track their progress and keep an eye on the efficiency of the farm worker as well as on fuel consumption, wringing every last drop of productivity from machinery and land.

Other devices put WiFi repeaters on sheep to create a mesh network that extends internet connectivity where there is no mobile signal or WiFi connectivity, while dairy farmers can put smart accelerometers on their cows that monitor how the animal moves and warn of any change in pattern that could indicate illness.

However, while IoT devices can be fun and useful, there is growing concern about their security. Devices that use machine-to-machine data, information generated by the sensor that does not identify the (human) user, are not covered by data protection laws. Graham Cluley, a computer security consultant, says: “The foundation of everything on the IoT is to start by making it secure and then make it useful. I worry that these devices will be made cheaply and not with the future in mind.”

Internet-compatible dolls face scrutiny over privacy

There are many alarming examples of IoT devices posing security problems. Fiat Chrysler recalled 1.4m cars last year when two hackers proved they could take control of a Jeep remotely. They managed to manipulate the car’s transmission, air conditioning and radio over the internet as it was being driven.

Mattel’s Hello Barbie, a doll that uses speech recognition and machine learning to have “conversations” with a child, has sparked security and privacy fears more than once. Most recently, Matt Jakubowski, a security researcher, announced that he had hacked the doll and gained access to “system information, WiFi network names, its internal MAC address, account IDs and MP3 files”.

Hackers have also found vulnerabilities in a smart toothbrush (which provokes the question of why you would want a smart toothbrush in the first place) and in 2014, Hewlett-Packard reported in a survey of IoT devices that 60 per cent of those had user interfaces with security vulnerabilities, while 90 per cent collected at least one piece of personal information.

Not even my smart kettle is safe — it was found to have a vulnerability that could cause it to reveal WiFi passwords. The makers breezily assured me that they would have a patch by the end of November, though none had arrived by mid-December. Meantime, I have gone back to the old-fashioned way of making coffee.

Apps for travel, typing and picture editing

Polarsteps
iPhone, free

This is a nice app for business travellers who want to keep in touch with family and friends while they are away but do not have time to do so manually. Create an account, via email or Facebook, tell the app your trip dates, turn on the tracker and it will automatically log where you are. You can add pictures and notes and it is all presented on a gorgeous website that you can keep private or share. However, the app asks if it can track you when you are not using it and there is no indication of what the developers might do with all that juicy data the app has collected.

Swiftkey Neural Alpha
Android, free (in-app purchases)

Fans of the Swiftkey replacement keyboard might like to give this a go. It uses neural networks and AI to learn how you write — your style, your syntax and your subjects — to provide more useful predictive text. It is an unfinished app, so expect it to be bumpy. I gave up after a few days with it on my Nexus 9 tablet running the latest version of Android, Marshmallow. But as the latter is flaky on my device anyway, the app may not be to blame. I like Swiftkey in general and plan to give it another go when it is beyond alpha stage. Worth a look.

Adobe Lightroom
iPad, free 

Adobe has made its excellent photo-editing app free for iOS users: no longer do you need a Creative Cloud membership plan to use it. The app imports from your camera roll — or your images stored in the Creative Cloud if you do have an account — and offers several quick presets, from simple colour correction and vignetting to more creative ones. Once you are done, export the edited image back into your iPad’s gallery. For more advanced editing, you can open the image in Photoshop Fix, which is also free and does not require a Creative Cloud account. It is intuitive, but you will need to spend a few minutes finding your way around the gestures and controls. Android users still need a Creative Cloud account to use this.

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