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Smart World Lockdown: Preparing for a truly connected world

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: iStock)
(Credit: iStock)

The Internet of Things offers numerous benefits to companies but smart systems will attract smart hackers who could wreak havoc

Confused by the Internet of Things?

There may be good reason, says Cees Links – and he ought to know. Having worked in the industry for 30 years, Links can confidently claim to be a main driving force behind wi-fi’s ubiquity. In 1999, he closed the deal with Steve Jobs for the introduction of wireless LAN technology in the new Apple iBook, creating the first mass-market laptop with wi-fi connectivity.

The wonders within the hot tangerine or ice blue clamshell devices wowed users and critics – a New York Times reviewer, for example, said the wireless networking would be “profoundly important” – and the stage was set for Microsoft and others to tap the glorious power of cable-free internet. A few years later, Apple once again dictated the way forwards with the iPhone, forging the hyper-connected mobile world we now live in.

Almost 20 years after that fateful meeting, Links – now general manager of wireless connectivity at communications company Qorvo – is at the forefront of another technological revolution as more devices than ever connect to the internet. The Internet of Things’ hastening spread is nowhere clearer than at the huge IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona, where companies hawk their latest software ‘solutions’ in a vast, hangar-like hall and speakers crowd six stages from dawn until dusk, expounding the technology’s capabilities in everything from healthcare to transport.

In the cool of the venue’s press room, Links, who is clearly fascinated and engaged by his work, discusses a key issue with the technology. The problem, Links says in his affable way, is the language involved. It is “very non-articulate” and convoluted, he claims, creating confusion and uncertainty about its fundamental nature, benefits and challenges.

“If you have a smart streetlight, do you have a smart city? If you have a smart parking system, do you have a smart city? Our language is, I would say, still very marketing-orientated,” says Links. The jargon-heavy, non-technical language is a sign of the IoT’s immaturity, he claims, and not suited for something with such wide potential.

According to analysts at Gartner, there are 8.4bn connected ‘things’ in the world – more devices than humans. That number is set to skyrocket, with 20.4bn predicted by 2020.

However, the technology is still “very, very immature,” says Links, with all the attendant issues that come with that. So how will the technology become the driver for the all-encompassing, frictionless techno-utopia promised by the smart-city thinkers, and how will it secure its position at the heart of Industry 4.0?

Maserati uses Siemens smart factory technology in the Ghibli production line (Credit: Siemens)
Maserati uses Siemens smart factory technology in the Ghibli production line (Credit: Siemens)

 

All change

About 10 years ago, technology company PTC noticed a change in the market. After 22 years designing, and later servicing, products for manufacturers, it noticed its customers starting to value software over physical products. More and more devices were getting IP addresses and connecting to the internet, and the company realised that the dawn of widespread and accessible IoT applications would herald huge changes in manufacturing.

“Everything we had previously known about how companies design, manufacture, service and operate products was going to change,” says PTC general manager Howard Heppelmann in Barcelona. “If you could have a real feedback loop from the product back to engineering, it would change all the key business processes that were in place.”

A decade later, the IoT is truly having that impact in industry. Connected devices and external sensors tap vast oceans of data, sharing that information with each other and analytics software, and allowing widespread predictive maintenance, telling operators what needs fixing in advance and when to do it.

Software feeding on the data stream creates detailed maps of workers and potential hazards, helping to prevent potentially fatal industrial accidents. Bosses might use highlighted trends and anomalies to help workers improve, training them to avoid previous mistakes. Overall, IoT systems help boost efficiency and productivity as artificial intelligence and big data analytics identify waste and excess, streamlining companies and leading to potential savings.

It might seem like plain sailing to business success for IoT-enabled companies. However, a quick scan around the room at the IoT Solutions World Congress points to a potential underlying issue – rows and rows of delegates promoting security solutions for today’s connected companies.

Searching for answers at the IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona (Credit: IoT Solutions World Congress)
Searching for answers at the IoT Solutions World Congress in Barcelona (Credit: IoT Solutions World Congress)  

 

Hackers gaining knowledge

The rise of the IoT has a dark mirror image, says Safdar Akhtar, Honeywell’s director of cyber-security. As executives realised the technology’s potential, so did the hackers.

“The risk is more and more, because now we are becoming more and more connected to optimise systems and create smart environments,” he says. “In the past, hackers were one step ahead. Now they are a few steps ahead, because we have given them a connected environment. Not only that, they are becoming more intelligent, they are gaining more knowledge.”

IoT systems bring an inherent vulnerability because of their size; more devices might bring efficiency and productivity, but they also increase the “surface area” available for hackers to target.

“Back in the days before computers, if you were going to attack a company you had to attack its facility physically, or you had to attack its people physically,” says Dean Weber, chief technology officer at security company Mocana. “Nowadays that’s not the case. We’ve got attack surfaces on everything, from smart lighting to smart shoes.”

High-profile hacks such as the WannaCry ransomware attack in May, which infected more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries, reveal industry’s increasing vulnerability to lone hackers or state-sponsored groups.

Poorly-secured domestic gadgets also highlight hackers’ ability to force their way into all kinds of devices. Financial worker Rilana Hamer from the Netherlands made international news headlines in October after an unknown hacker took control of her webcam. Walking into her living room, Hamer was shocked to see the device turning towards her, before the man’s voice came out of the camera speakers: “Bonjour, Madame”. Later, he sexually harassed her.

The company that sold the camera, Action, urged users to change the device’s default pin and use strong wi-fi passwords, but many people worldwide have fallen foul of similar attacks. If left unsecured, industrial devices can be similarly vulnerable, says Weber. “Security is needed – period.”

Cees Links secured the deal with Steve Jobs for the introduction of wi-fi into Apple iBook laptops and is now an IoT expert
Cees Links secured the deal with Steve Jobs for the introduction of wi-fi into Apple iBook laptops and is now an IoT expert

 

Happiness or sadness

Strong security protocols must be built into IoT devices from the start, says Weber, in contrast to the piecemeal approach seen in the disparate IT landscape since the 1990s. “We have an opportunity in operational technology to say: ‘Let’s do it right for once, let’s build security in, not bolt it on. Let’s make sure they’re willing to pay for it, because it’s the difference between happiness and sadness’.”

The risks for companies are huge. Hackers could take control of robotic arms, threatening nearby workers, or use malware such as Brickerbot to permanently force connected devices offline. The economic impact of even a short outage can be massive, says PTC’s Heppelmann, who describes the potential harm of downtime at a major automotive client’s factories.

“In the first three minutes that a line is down, by the time it takes someone to call the maintenance team and inspect it, it’s a $70,000 (£53,000) problem,” he says. “That could be a bigger problem if it’s an offshore oil rig.”

Security breaches can create other financial issues for companies. “Take an oil production facility,” says Heppelmann. “If you could get in and see how much oil they are producing, that actually can be used to affect trading.”

The result, he claims, is most factory operators are “hyper-concerned” about potential sabotage. This creates a curious and perhaps unexpectedly insular viewpoint for businesses otherwise embracing connectivity – a desire to stay off the cloud, where information is available through remote servers.

Given the choice, more than 95% of PTC’s manufacturing customers chose to deploy IoT software on the premises in 2016, deciding against the nebulous data analysis and more “holistic” view offered by connected cloud systems.

“If you are in a high need for security, there are many ways to solve that but one of them is to build no doors and windows in your system,” says Links. “That’s a very secure way. The disadvantage is you have no doors or windows.”

However, while businesses are wary of the cyber-security risks involved with sending and receiving data from outside the secure walls of their facilities, more are now choosing to work on the “edge”, using smaller data centres that are physically closer to the information’s source and which also use less energy and pass on information with less delay.

Will new technology deliver utopia or the desolate wasteland seen here in Blade Runner 2049? (Credit: iMovieDBstills)
Will new technology deliver utopia or the desolate wasteland seen here in Blade Runner 2049? (Credit: iMovieDBstills) 

 

Language problems

For Links, there is a more fundamental issue than cloud/edge computing that companies ought to be thinking about – the problem of language. “Our language is not even synchronised,” he says. “If I have a smart meter in my home, do I have a smart house? I don’t know.”

Although the issue could seem semantic, even philosophical, Links says it has a direct impact on key aspects of the IoT, including security. “We are still at the stage where we need to solve all types of things with the IoT before we even can start addressing the things that are one layer deeper,” he says. “For instance, if you are struggling to classify applications, how can we classify what security is required for what applications?”

Without the technical language seen in other engineering sectors, Links says the IoT is still “a very, very, very immature business”. However, he confidently predicts that a “killer app” will come sooner or later, unifying the best aspects of the technology into a widely accessible and applicable platform. Until then, he says, the IoT is just a shadow of what it could be.

“We think that, with the arrival of the computer and the internet, we have seen it,” he says. “My feeling is, it hasn’t started. It’s still so used in very scarce pockets, it’s far from being integrated in the way it will be... that is my vision.”

* Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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