The Government and the IoT: New problems require new solutions

by Andy Heikkila

IoTAs time progresses, the Internet of Things (IoT) creeps further and further from our periphery and into our everyday lives. The government, usually the last to adopt any type of technological innovation, is now finding use for the IoT as well (although some might argue that the large-scale network required by the IoT makes it the perfect candidate for government initiation). Nevertheless, the technology is still in its infancy, both federally and locally, and, because it’s still so new, the government is moving forward slowly with it. The cost of material, relatively untested processes, and the risk of an unsecured infrastructure, threatens the future of the IoT–but time may show that as these inefficiencies are patched up, the newfound benefits of the IoT become indispensible to our society.

The IoT is Ancient… Sort Of

Well… maybe the IoT isn’t ancient, but it is actually pretty old when we think about its application. One example is the Lower Colorado River Authority’s (LCRA) deployment of sensors along the Colorado River in Texas decades ago, which helps track stream levels and potentials floods. Back then “they didn’t realize they were implementing an IoT system,” said John Miri, chief administrative officer of LCRA. “They were just using the tools that were available.”

Technology has a way of doing this. Electronic tax filing, for example, began in 1986 but the majority of the U.S. wouldn’t be using e-filing until about thirty years later. The IoT, however, is reaching its tipping point–from the ridesharing industry to the cities and roadway infrastructure they inhabit, both private and public sectors seem to be ready to begin fully embracing the IoT.

The IoT is Everywhere

“This wave of technology has more chance of reimagining whole swathes of the world than anything we’ve seen before.”

—Tim O’Reilly, quoted in Chris Witeck, “The Internet of Things (IoT): The best is yet to come,”

Deloitte University Press uses the above quote in their piece covering the IoT and its use in government, and they make three specific predictions on where the IoT will shine: public utility, public safety, and public education. The public utility use is similar to what the LCRA was using sensors to predict flooding for–however, Deloitte mentions that worse than flooding is drought, especially in California and the Plains States. The problem is that 155,000 different US water-supply corporations don’t always communicate perfectly each other, meaning that the government and the IoT can step in to rectify these problems.

When it comes to public safety, Deloitte argues that the IoT could aggregate and analyze information about emergency response situations quickly and efficiently. The example they use is that, in 2011, Los Angeles 911 dispatchers successfully alerted the L.A. Fire Department within their target 60-second timeframe a dismal 15% of the time. Another example, environmental sensors, can register and report gunshots within 10 feet in real time. Finally with education, Deloitte argues that distribution of teachers’ time could be measured more accurately with the IoT, and insights may be derived from patterns that have previously gone unnoticed.

Others have suggested that automated robots using GPR (ground penetrating radar) might help with more cheaply and accurately surveying land, terrestrial and extraterrestrial, while others focus on the environmental conservation that smart buildings erected on that land might provide in the future. Looking ahead, the future is bright–as long a the risks posed by IoT adoption are taken care of first.

Risks Ahead

The biggest risk to the IoT right now isn’t necessarily its cost or even whether or not it will function, but instead its security. The Dyn DDoS Cyberattack at the end of 2016 is a great example what can happen when easily hackable devices are taken control of by a botnet. For about half a day, the Internet was essentially shut down due to a spam attack, accosted by automated requests from thousands of devices that were no longer under their users control–but that’s not even the half of it.

What’s not talked about enough are the institutions being hit hardest by the lack of security in the IoT. Hospitals, for example, are being hit by ransomware, and extorted for millions of dollars–in total, the cost of ransomware to hospitals and other businesses in 2016 was over $1 billion. That’s a lot.

Fortunately, the government has a plan for that too, and are finally trying to catch up on and institute cybersecurity policy. With a proactive approach, governments can finally patch security in an IoT that is wildly insecure.

As it stands, the IoT is moving forward no matter what. Hopefully, the government will help pave the way with security as well as with use. Once they do, this technology, as Tim O’Reilly would put it, will change the world.

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Andrew HeikkilaAndrew Heikkila, a tech enthusiast and writer from Boise, Idaho, and a frequent contributor to Innovation Excellence. He also writes for Tech Crunch. You can follow him @AndyO_TheHammer

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