Taking the buzz out of the ‘Internet of Things’

The buzz around the term the “Internet of Things (IoT)” isn’t being lost on the government.

Agencies are hearing about the world we are supposedly moving toward — everything is connected, all the time and data is being collected, analyzed and used to help you do everything from buying food to becoming healthier to alerting you to sales at your favorite store.

But sometimes the government must be a little bit of a buzz kill.

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The buzz around the term the “Internet of Things (IoT)” isn’t being lost on the government.

Agencies are hearing about the world we are supposedly moving toward — everything is connected, all the time and data is being collected, analyzed and used to help you do everything from buying food to becoming healthier to alerting you to sales at your favorite store.

But sometimes the government must be a little bit of a buzz kill.

The Internet of Things isn’t new to the government, nor is it the next great wave of change. Sorry to all those people who love the IoT concept.

The Oct. 7 AFCEA Bethesda, Maryland, breakfast on IoT made it clear that the government has been in the “Internet of Things” for quite some time, and to go further some fundamental changes need to occur.

Let’s start with how government is ahead of the rest of the IoT world.

Take the State Department. It wanted to measure and alert people about the air pollution in China.

Brian Nordmann, a senior arms control adviser for State, said the embassy decided to collect data and post it on Twitter. The hourly feed as to whether the air is “hazardous” or “very hazardous” has hundreds of thousands of followers in China.

“We started looking at other things that you can do with iPhones. It’s got accelometers on it, so it knows how you are holding the phone and it will adjust the image. Well those accelometers are good enough that you can actually make a small seismograph out of that,” he said. “So rather than having this network of big seismographs around the world to detect what’s going on — and we use seismographs to detect not just earthquakes, but whether there is a nuclear test underground — so if you get enough of these iPhones in this area and you can do it from about 100 kilometers away, it will detect a tremor of a nuclear device. We started exploring how to use the accelometers for that.”

Nordmann said the microphone also is sensitive enough that it can detect an infrasonic noise.

“We have these guys out in the University of Hawaii who are working with the microphones to see how low of a signal it can actually detect,” he said. “The professor at the University of Hawaii went to his local Apple store and bought 12 of the new iPhones 5. Apple contacted him about why he was buying these Apple phones. He said we are using for infrasonic detection and Apple didn’t know the phones could do these things.”

Both of these are but two examples of how agencies or government funded research is knee deep into this “IoT” thing.

Jeff Booth, an information applications and standards division director in the First Responders Group in the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, puts a finer point on how the government views IoT. He said the concept isn’t about the technology in and of itself, but what it can do for the mission.

“The value is defined by the user so the Internet of Things, I think, value is still yet to be defined,” Booth said. “There are emerging capabilities. Many of the sensors will be applied to some of the areas we support.”

Chris Greer, the director of the smart grid and cyber-physical systems program office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, echoed Booth’s comments about the value of IoT.

He said whatever will promote investment and the ability to exploit the capabilities will be a main driver of IoT.

“From our perspective, the driver is interoperability,” Greer said. “A device implemented for one function can be used for other. It happens at the application level, but for IoT you have to get the platform right.”

Greer and others point to the big gaping hole when it comes to interconnected devices — privacy and civil liberties protections.

He said from an architecture perspective, industry and government haven’t paid enough attention to those things yet. And part of that is the inability of Congress to keep laws up with the changing technology.

“We are driven by the Privacy Act of 1972. They did not even predict there would be computers that everybody had on their desks or in their homes,” Nordmann said. “So they wrote this Privacy Act that said,  ‘Your data is your data and you get to control it and the government cannot possess it without your permission.’ Now we’ve got 300 million people whose data is currently moving around on the Internet of Things. We cannot have possession of that information. We cannot have that information and your name anywhere each other. We have to file massive amounts of paperwork to explain what we will do with the information and how we will not connect it to an individual person.”

He said IoT or smart cities or electronic health care can’t be done easily without solving the Privacy Act challenges.

Nordmann said a recent experience at State proves that out.

He said State hosted a challenge where it would give $5,000 to a winner to solve a problem, and it ended up being a debate among lawyers about how to use the rules under the Privacy Act.

State included a few sentences in the challenge saying participants consented to having their data used by the department.

Nordmann said the lawyers were unhappy with the language and turned it into a 28-page public-consent document for a $5,000 challenge.

“It wasn’t one of these things you could scroll through and click, ‘I agree’ and get through this. They had on every page a button to click, ‘I agree.’ Nobody read through the entire 28 pages and we couldn’t figure why we had only 200 people competing when the year before when the lawyers didn’t know we were doing it, we had over 1,000. It was all because of the consent form,” he said. “So far, we haven’t been able to get the attorney general to get together a meeting of all the department lawyers in one room to figure this act and figure out how it works for us or against us.”

So while the government has been using sensors and collecting non-citizen data for some time, the move to what some see as the more valuable information needs some help.

Until Congress modernizes the Privacy Act, this concept of the Internet of Things will be based on a series of one-offs for agencies to get approval from citizens.

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