Fear your toaster


By Scott Robertson

Less than two hours down the road, the University of Tennessee is moving forward. Less than two hours up the road, in Southwest Virginia, another institution of higher learning is going in a different direction, but still moving ahead. We are not referring to the Battle at Bristol.

The institution I’m referring to in Southwest Virginia is the University of Virginia-Wise, and the field in which both schools are working is called the Internet of Things. The work being done at both schools will affect not just Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, but virtually everyone in the civilized world, and that’s not hyperbole.

This week, data analytics experts will be meeting in Knoxville to address how data is being gathered and used by billions of devices that have computer chips, but are not computers. For instance, many medical implants have chips that not only serve to regulate some bodily function, but also gather data and report it to physicians so the patient’s progress can be monitored.

Cars have chips. Appliances have chips. Toys have chips. Hence the name Internet of Things. All these chips are communicative, sharing the data they collect.

The folks in Knoxville are convening to discuss the wide array of possibilities presented by this technology.

Used properly, machine-to-machine communication built on cloud computing can do more than connect devices, explains Julia Ferrara, director of the Business Analytics Forum, it can automate action. “With the proper architecture in place, an organization can program its data sources to communicate and make predictive decisions—like avoiding delivery routes that have the potential to be iced over or flooded.”

Forward-thinking networks of items could easily outperform the process of having humans look back at existing processes to identify efficiencies, which is one of the ways the best businesses become more successful than the rest. The machines could simply see the most efficient courses of action ahead and take decisions accordingly.

Of course one underlying assumption in creating a network of things that can make their own decisions included the idea that we’ll always be able to keep evildoers from accessing the network.

That’s where the Southwest Virginia folks up at UVA-Wise come in. They have IT meetings there too. I attended one last month and heard sobering facts about the state of the Internet of Things.

The Commonweath of Virginia is the eastern version of Silicon Valley. A huge number of IT companies are based in Northern Virginia. In fact, it’s becoming very costly to start a new one there. So the state government has begun incentivizing start-ups to begin operations elsewhere in the state. Thus the creation of the UVA-Wise Oxbow Center in St. Paul.

The Oxbow Center is to serve as an incubator for IT security companies. Already the school is running a program to educate Southwest Virginians in protecting information technology-enabled items from threat of breach.

The threat is neither vague nor futuristic. In fact, the odds are good you have already been touched.

In December 2013, Target was the victim of a data breach in which the credit card information of 40 million Americans was compromised. Forty million people were hit by a data breach that put their finances at risk – because of an air conditioner.

Yep. The Internet of Things was what allowed a company that spent millions of dollars protecting its computer networks to be hacked. Bad guys circumvented the security around Target’s computers by entering the network through a chip in the HVAC system.

There’s no doubt business can benefit from the best practice ideas that will be discussed in Knoxville this week. Neither, however, should there be any doubt that constant improvement of security for the Internet of Things is the very best practice of all.

I’m not given to alarmism. But I know I had to get a new credit card three years ago because of one successful hack in the Internet of Things.

This past week we were reminded of the much worse effects of one security failure this country experienced 15 years ago.

The same ideologies that drove the attacks of 9/11 are still there. The same individuals who celebrated those attacks are still looking for the next opportunity. The larger the network they can attack, the more chances for success they have.

I edit a business magazine and I support American business doing what it can to stay a step ahead in the world economy. I know the march of technology is inexorable. But I hope the folks in Knoxville are paying attention to the warnings from Wise.


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