The Internet of All Your Stuff


The other day Peter blogged about the immense vulnerability created by the Internet of Things. His comments have given me to think about the connections that crawl spider-like over our entire landscape, both physical and mental, and the weaknesses they expose.

Our privacy is being eroded at a rate that would have appalled Winston Smith.

The Internet of Your Things

This was Peter’s starting point; isn’t anybody worried about setting up your home appliances so that they’ll be easy to hack into? Well, no, not yet. What about the likelihood that they’ll be used as a back door into your computer and all your data? No, that doesn’t seem to bother anyone either. Yet.

Creepy Connections

Our younger daughter treats “Alexa” like a family friend. Does it bother her that there’s a device in her living room which is by definition always listening, and which may be sending the results of its eavesdropping God knows where? Oh, no. Her smartphone already does that, you see.

And it’s inconceivable that she should give up the convenience of the smartphone.

The Self-Appointed Censors

The last couple of years have taught me a lot about the dangers of depending on other people’s software for a platform or a network. The censorship power of privately owned networks like Facebook and Twitter has been revealed, and it’s not pretty. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg promising that his company will develop AI algorithms to restrict ‘hate speech’ (and he gets to define what that is) or Twitter shadow-banning a conservative account, or Google secretly fixing search results, the social media giants are showing their muscle in ways that ought to alarm all of us – whether or not we are the ones suffering directly.

Because ultimately, we all suffer from a system in which the most powerful stifle free speech and robust debate.

Lucky us; we’re getting totalitarian rulers who know better than we do what we should think, do and say – and we didn’t even have to vote for them!

The Lynch Mob Effect

We all know how this works: someone gets designated Incorrect Thinker of the Day and the Twitterverse piles on and unless the designated victim is independently wealthy or works for someone with cojones, his life immediately gets much, much worse. Enough worse to intimidate a lot of other people into silence. And even if your character doesn’t lose his livelihood, he may still get to weather death threats to himself and family, mobs in the front yard, and plenty of other things that I certainly would find intimidating.

Convenience over security

I’m as bad as the rest of us about valuing convenience over security; I may not invite Alexa into the living room or have a Facebook account, but I use email to write to my friends; I shop and research online whenever possible; I am, for heaven’s sake, posting this rant online! When I do think about it, I rely on being too old, too unimportant, and too boring to attract attention. Where’s the fun in Twitter-mobbing someone nobody’s ever heard of? What’s the point of collecting data on somebody’s Internet use when all you get is the url’s for a bunch of writing and fiberart sites?

In short, I’m counting on the Masters and the Mob having no motive to go after me.

And when it’s put that clearly, it doesn’t seem like all that much protection, does it?

Imperial Purple

That’s the title of a novel by Gillian Bradshaw, published thirty years ago and set in fifth-century Constantinople. One wouldn’t expect it to have much relevance to this frighteningly interconnected new world. But it is a salutary reminder – for people like me – of how easy it is to be made a target. The protagonist is a weaver. A working woman. A skilled craftswoman, but unimportant in the lives of the rich and powerful… until a stranger commissions her to weave a robe of imperial purple.

A robe whose dimensions would never fit Theodosius, the current emperor.

And that simply, her life is turned upside down. One side may execute her for being part of a plot against the emperor; the other may assassinate her to keep her from revealing her commission.

A modest proposal

Today,  Imperial Purple  reminds me of the many ways in which trouble can find you even if you weren’t looking for it. Sometimes I have a hard time thinking of rocks to throw at my characters, and there’s a rich supply in current events for anybody who’s writing contemporary or near-future fiction.

What if somebody starts setting houses on fire by attacking their “smart” thermostats and other controllers? Or if you just want to drive your character crazy rather than killing them, turn the freezer off? Run the dishwasher nonstop? Cut off the hot water in winter? (Guaranteed disaster, this, for any household that includes teenage girls.)

Raise the ante by looking at bigger systems: Did the Navy just install AI-controlled thermostats to fight climate change? What happens if somebody uses one to seize control of a nuclear sub?

Or raise it by making the threats more personal. Get a character fired? Put him in fear for his life? His family’s lives? Send him up against an “intelligence community” with its own agenda? Strip away his privacy and point a mob at him? Get him blackmailed over an innocuous statement than has suddenly become Incorrect? Make him face demands for a public apology over an innocent action? Publicize donations he thought were private, and then rake him over the coals for daring to support the wrong causes? Make him choose between firing an innocent person and seeing his entire company crumble, putting thousands out of work? All these things are even easier to write than the internet-of-things sabotage, because they have already been done and are being repeated daily.

Take away any platform he might use to reply or defend himself. If he makes the mistake of apologizing, have his antagonists double down on demands. Send him to a self-criticism session. Smear, slander, libel him. Publish lies on the front page and corrections on page B17 in the small print.

Those who allow evil to work through them have been throwing some impressive rocks at the rest of us, people. Maybe if we throw some of the same rocks at our characters, a few readers will question the social system that supports all this.

Or maybe not. There’s only one way to find out.



  1. We all know how this works: someone gets designated Incorrect Thinker of the Day and the Twitterverse piles on…

    “the Orville” episode, “Majority Rule”

  2. The last couple of years have taught me a lot about the dangers of depending on other people’s software for a platform or a network.

    I still can’t get my department convinced that we should be running our own stuff at the time of incident rather than waiting for the prosecutor’s office or the clerk of court to run it when it comes time for trial. A lot can change between time of arrest and the trial, which is sometimes a year or more later.

    And one of the people I’ve argued with over that wants to set up Alexa in all the various areas of our department (dispatch, patrol, LT’s office, etc.) to “make it easier to communicate.” Because picking up the phone or radio and calling them is such a hassle I guess?

    1. Back in the early 1980s my local small-town PD jumped on the computer bandwagon. The Dispatch desk got a PC and software so the patrolmen could call in a name or driver’s license number and do a quick check on people they pulled over.

      Whoever wrote the software made the assumption that names were unique.

      There were four other people in my town with the same name I have, and three of those were felons.

      Had some downright tense encounters, there… they used that software for at least five years.

      1. Argh. I worked for a photography studio that did high school portraits en masse—and IDs as well. After one year at a school that had several girls with the exact same name* get the wrong ID, we started having the checkin person go by homerooms and student ID numbers.

        *Second-generation Vietnamese community, from the boat people at the end of the Vietnam War. Lots of people choosing innocuous English names for their kids means that there were a lot of Susan Vangs.

        1. We had a blended family in town for awhile. “Michael Smith” married “Jane Wilson” and both had custody of their daughters. Both daughters were named “Brenda” and were born on the same day. Confusion reigned.

        2. My last name is fairly common, so I’ve had confusion issues starting in college. I’ve had at least one panicked phone call asking about a major exam. I wasn’t the TA, and he wasn’t living in the dorms. Fun.

          At work (Large Electronics Company), I had problems with two people having the same name (mostly) as mine. One had slightly different spelling for the surname, but to add some excitement, the other Peter worked for the first. These guys were in England, so I had to turn down some fun meeting invitations.

          And then there was a wheelchair racer with the same name. It could have been easier to be named Zebulon.

  3. Alexa! It’s your own personal Stasi agent you paid to inform on you. Not having one, ever.

    1. I usually keep the WiFi off in the house, unless it’s to download the Kindle. Our TV is dumb, and when it dies, any smart one won’t have any permission to use our internet. We use old-school flip phones when we actually use cell service (easy to avoid at home; connections are awful).

      With Faecesbook blocked via NoScript and an adblocker running, I figure I’m moderately unknown to Those Better Than Us.

  4. There was a post the other day about a casino that was hacked using the IoT thermometer in the lobby fish tank. I’ve posted numerous times about just how small and how CHEAP wireless IoT chips are getting. There are autonomous light bulbs for sale. Said autonomous light bulbs were used to execute a DDOS attack on a major university a couple of years ago.

    Here’s the thing. The targeting part of the Big Bad in the Marvel Captain America Winter Soldier movie is already out there. It is called FarceBook. That company has the capability of identifying personal preferences for people who are not even using their service. They have had it for years. Anyone who thinks those silicon valley SJW nerds have not used that technology to identify people guilty of WrongThink has not been paying attention. Ap[ple, U[ber, tw[itter, they all have this capability.

    You Android and Apple phones are already listening devices. You don’t need Alexa, the phone is listening all the time.

    To date, this hasn’t been a problem for anyone because the sheer volume of data and the poor quality of it overwhelms the search system. However now, that flood is coming increasingly under control. The costs of processors and storage are cut in half about every 18 months, the power of processors goes up by half on the same schedule.

    All it will take is for somebody big to decide they really can’t put up with the knuckledraggers anymore, and to start generating hit lists of deplorables. I can easily see a company like Groo[ggle making deals with the major banks, no credit for deplorables.

    This may lead to some unpleasantness for a few weeks in some major US cities. After which, things will all go back to normal. Or mostly normal. After the fires burn out.

    Because despite the rhetoric and the bluster of techies, its hard to enslave an armed population of free men using phones.

    1. I do wonder if there’s a number of elites who understand that it wouldn’t take much to trigger a proper preference cascade.

    2. Currently, my nutjob paranoia includes the theory that Google is already a committed adversary breaking the law in pursuit of that. I’ve spoken in the past of the theory that Google has learned too much from the Great Firewall of China. If Google was outright working for a Chinese effort to conquer the US through subornment, what would they be doing differently? Gun control fits, legalizing weed perhaps fits, the situation in California maybe fits…

      1. Something that isn’t talked about much is that the Chinese have a habit of dragging all the cops out of the town cop-shop, beating the hell out of them in the street, and then and burning it down. They generally do this after some new directive or new chief comes in and starts in getting things “squared away” in the town. So while its a tyranny, it is a very -careful- tyranny that doesn’t do things to inflame the countryside.

        As for Grooogle, I get the inpression that their upper management have been introduced to some of the extreme decadence that was traditionally the exclusive province of Old Money. Stuff like that leaves a mark.

    3. All it will take is for somebody big to decide they really can’t put up with the knuckledraggers anymore, and to start generating hit lists of deplorables.

      What makes you think they haven’t already done this, and implemented it? The targets may be people you are not aware of, in fields that are not immediately apparent. Accidents, or deaths reported as accidents… are all too frequent.

      Paranoia? No. I just remember there being stories of people disappearing in the Marcos era – and I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of those had nothing to do with Marcos himself, but were solely the responsibility of his underlings.

      Then too, I remember that incident that I was PERSONALLY witness to, that may have gotten a pair of people disappeared, in East Germany. The police…may have backed off, but in retrospect, viewing that incident with an adult’s eyes, I wonder if that couple wasn’t picked up after we had left.

      1. Well, there’s also certain unknown bits of the hiring process. One gets to wondering.

  5. “Maybe if we throw some of the same rocks at our characters, a few readers will question the social system that supports all this.”

    I think it’s actually the only hope to save anybody. It’s how we got here, right?
    A little assist from Darwin, survival of the readers.

  6. One would think you’d hacked a copy of my WIP off my desktop. One major event is a family getting doxxed after some people whose ox is getting gored frame the patriarch, but fail to prove the case. So the Bad Guys throw them to the Public Opinion Wolves. Thought I better mention it now before I get accused of stealing ideas 🙂

      1. Not too far off. The Dad (patriarch) is a former Marine that owns a security company and (SPOILER ALERT!) gets framed for (supposedly) committing atrocities in the ME. They get exonerated, but his (undisclosed) enemies leak his personal info to the media, and he get Bad Things done to his family by an (undisclosed) group of peeps that are SURE, facts be damned, that he is the Devil Incarnate leading a group of violent Imperialists.

  7. I have never liked technology. Sib calls me a Luddite, and Sib has a point, but… I’ve been stalked and mobbed IRL. I’d just as soon not have it happen again. I realize that the various [anti]social media platforms probably have info on me even though I’m not an account holder, but I see no reason to make it easier. And NO smart thermostats, appliances, Alexas, TVs or anything else I can keep at bay.

    1. I freakin’ *love* technology. I probably wasn’t the first person in my town to own a modem… but people keep gluing inappropriate technologies onto things, sometimes for (their) convenience, sometimes for no apparent reason. Why should I have to wrap metal window screen around a piece of home medical equipment and run a ground wire out the window to keep it from tattling very personal information to the mothership? “That feature can’t be turned off” my ass…

      1. I suppose I could have gotten an auto-tattle CPAP machine, but as it was, I got the most advanced model that was offered before auto-tattle. Some med tests indicate that a certain heart condition is linked to another CPAP event, and I really don’t want any of this to be available to the world at large.

        The Botnet of Things (see Peter Grant’s casino post) is yet another reason why our widgets are either dumb or lobotomized. (Mostly dumb, so far.)

  8. Email is inherently insecure. I’ve never had an expectation of true privacy. Never say anything anywhere you can’t be prepared to own.

  9. It could very well be that too much digital intrusiveness leads to the Butlerian Jihad.

      1. It’s part of the backstory for Dune, if you’ve heard of that.
        Long story short, a bunch of humans decided AI was a bad idea, and decided to do something about it.

        1. Dune! I read the first book but I didn’t really care for the second so I stopped there.

  10. I’m reminded of the Dave Berry column on “smart” appliances.

    “Your refrigerator should be dumber than you, like your representative in congress.”

    1. I do not want my fridge ordering things for me. Nor do I want it trying to give me nutrition and diet advice. It’s job is to keep food cold. Something tells me that the designers put too much emphasis on “smart” and not enough on durable, quiet, roomy, and functional.

      1. If I DID want my refrigerator making ordering lists or giving me nutrition & diet advice, I’d want it to have a local database so it works well-enough when completely air-gapped from the internet. Continuous connection = continuous vulnerability.

  11. I think the lesson of the early 21st Century is: “Just because you CAN put a computer chip in something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD.”

    Yes, it is possible to install a computer based building management system to control the HVAC of a building. We have one of those, and it got confused one night and turned off the hot water boiler and opened all of the outside air vents, evidently under the impression that it was 20C instead of 20F outside (or something. We don’t actually know why it failed) As a result, water froze in all the hot water heating pipes, and when the boiler was restarted in the morning, the burst pipes flooded the third floor of the Science Building.

    I have never seen a bimetal strup and mercury switch do that.

    What’s more, this was an internal fault, since the internet connectivity that the installers promised us never worked. If the system had worked as advertised, a hostile hacker could have pulled that trick or others as bad or worse.

    1. Last summer I ran CAT-6 wiring all through the new house, and coax and twisted pairs for the alarm and land line jacks, a fiber optic cable from the utility drop to the equipment closet. I have temperature and humidity sensors in the attic and crawlspace. And more stuff… the cable bundle going into the equipment closet is the size of my arm.

      BUT that doesn’t mean I’m letting anything talk outside my demarc. I’m still staring at studs and ceiling joists, and I’m *this* close to a Faraday cage… the only reason I haven’t is that clients call me on a cellphone. I’m still tempted…

        1. Cell extender acting as a gateway between outside and inside your Faraday cage, with a power switch, maybe?

          1. Jerry Pournelle used something like that for parts of Chaos Manor. His was supplied by AT&T. I was talking to someone in the boonies (very slightly better cell reception than we have) who went to cellular internet. The cell company (Verizon) provided a receiver with an external antenna so she could get reception. So, there are a couple of ways to have a controlled pathway out of a Faraday cage.

        2. Put a cellphone receiver inside the area, run a cable through the cage to a cellphone repeater outside. Same way you get WiFi to odd nooks and crannies.

      1. There are “home cells” that you can install inside your Faraday cage, or you can route cellular calls via the wi-fi router you already own.

        Then again, if either of these gadgets remains wired to the outside world (either by copper or fiber), or even plugged into mains power, your Faraday cage isn’t really complete anyway, so don’t trust it overmuch.

      2. I believe that you can get a USB dongle that is a micro cell tower. Plug it into an INTERNET connected computer inside the cage and your cellphone will work. Just make sure that neither the phone or the dongle have a hotspot and that none of your devices have cell connectivity.

  12. Hope you don’t mind — I’ve been invited to give a presentation in November/December at a symposium here in Japan, talking about the intersection of technology and society (basically… they are still mulling over their theme). For a general audience! I’m apparently going to represent the techie side of the world, I guess. So… I may borrow some of your notes and comments. Okay?

    1. Of course.

      Fun exercises. There’s a speech by a lady who identifies as a capitalist.

      Someone showed it to me, starting part way through, and I started cataloging disagreements. Starting with her claim to be a capitalist, because she clearly doesn’t have the intellectual grounding in the ideology I’ve come to expect from the internet. (One of these days I mean to write up my few agreements with that speech, and few disagreements with Reagan’s Time For Choosing.)

      I recently read a Factory Physics which was talking about various management fads in areas, like Lean, Six Sigma, and SCM, and how nobody has really systematized and unified this knowledge so it can be broadly and intelligently applied everywhere. My intuition is that this won’t happen, because the limiting factor is the extent to which rote application of a rule fails to optimize the behavior of people. This theory is one of my hobby horses. To support or disprove it, I’ve been looking at some of the theories which are good for building widgets in order to better understand the degree to which they can fail to work on humans. In other words, “technocracy as fallacy”, and what various fields have to tell us about why the Soviet Union collapsed.

      I think humans will continue to be the designers of the future’s technology, and will also be repairing, maintaining, and adjusting it to actually work because the designers are fools. What are useful qualities to cultivate in your children to better prepare them for this? What do they need? ATM, I think a big one is not having huge respect for scientists. STEM sometimes looks magic, but pretty much everything can be broken down into really simple bits. Which engineers sometimes somehow still manage to screw up.

      Maybe link us to the video of what you decide to say?

      1. > management fads

        Every time a new One True Way rolls in, I’m reminded of moving phantom divisions around from the Fuhrerbunker.

        Sometimes management has problems that need to be fixed. Despite the best consultants, that seldom happens, but at least someone admitted there was a problem.

        Worse is when there really *isn’t* a problem, but some bright spark in management buys in to the new hotness. No problems? Consultants can fix that for you, too…

        1. Kanban
          Just in time
          Management by objective
          Quality circles
          Those and a ton more, all with some success story attached usually in a far Eastern more rigid social/manufacturing environment.
          And inevitably used here as buzz words to cover a strict policy of business as usual, ie crony and good old boy networking.

            1. Six Sigma is an approach to quality. TQM is a previous fad on that subject. I have Bill Creech’s Five Pillars of TQM on my bookshelf, and found it fairly difficult to understand, then one of Creech’s disciples explained it, and it made sense.

              Lean is an efficiency approach.

              SCM is a logistics approach.

              Efficiency, quality, and logistics are important in any manufacturing environment. But manufacturing environments can be very different, so things are less messed up mixing several fads than trying to implement some fad unified theory of logistics, efficiency and quality.

              I did once work in a place, with a US workforce, that convinced me that these sort of things can work usefully. But that place was owned by and had a corporate culture influenced by a company grounded in a non-US culture.

              Problem is twofold. A system that is accessible enough to be a fad loses information which would be necessary for implementing across a wide range of manufacturing environments. Your managers are likely of the same overall level of ability they had before the fad, meaning they probably haven’t improved their ability to change the organization in useful ways.

              You have a population from which managers and workers are drawn. Only some of them are going to be at the very highest level of ability. What fraction of the population has a certain level of ability, versus the number of slots that need to be filled with people of that ability for things to function well? I suspect we are making some fundamental mistake somewhere. If I had even the germ of a solution, I’d be making money with it, not here yakking.

              The surprise isn’t that American companies are often very screwed up. The wonder is that they aren’t much more messed up than they really are.

              1. I’d say it’s cultural, as in company culture. Toyota can make quality cars in the US, following the same TPS (Toyota Production System, Toyota’s lean approach) as in Japan. The approach clearly needs to be adapted to the company and the market; just trying to graft some clearly visible markers of a successful system (such as TPS) onto a very different company culture is doomed to failure.

                There are lean companies in the US, but they tend to be privately owned (hmm….).

                1. I think that’s probably part of it. I’ve also heard a lot of claims over the years that MBA programs are a harmful influence. I have no interest in an MBA, I have no personal knowledge, and I’m willing to accept that as a working theory. (Okay, I may need some of the subject matter studied in business school, but I can self study that and save the expensive schooling for a subject I’m really interested in.) I’ve also been persuaded that some of the standard assumed formulas for organizations are wrong and destructive.

                  Maybe I’ll have more of a clue in another ten or fifteen years?

      1. Don’t know yet. They just invited me this last week, so this was very appropriate. And they are still working out details, like theme, when, and so forth… But I should at least be able to post my own presentation.

  13. well, i am kinda iffy on IoT devices just because so many of them have such crappy security, ESPECIALLY the DIY stuff built off arduinos. (whether it is microcontroller arduinos or microprocessor arduinos, i mean both)

    But as for Facebark, Twiddle and yourtoob, i think they and google are kinda derpy for supporting actual net neutrality legislation…

  14. Yeah, I wouldn’t get one of those barring some massive leap forward in encryption that could ensure that it wasn’t being used by anyone but me.

    1. For every massive leap forward in encryption, there is a massive leap forward in decryption.

  15. This AM, the DJ was talking about these nifty things you can add to your electrical switches and light-sockets so you can turn things off and on using an app on your phone! And it is so good for the environment! And so convenient! And I was thinking about how easy it would be to make his life miserable by hacking his electrical switches…

    1. or on our case, you can teach Alexa to switch them, and turn lights off and on(and dim them) by voice, which is handy for my roomate in a wheelchair.

  16. We are the Elbonian 13th Junior High School Chess and Computer Terrorist Society. We have taken complete control of your lunchbox lock. To open your lunchbox, send 25 cents in stamps or coins to Lunch Box, 13th Junior High School, People’s Empire of North Elbonia. Include your name and address.

    I have seen reports, and can no longer tell if these are authentic and a plot to put TheOnion out of business, that there is a new Alexa variant. It is designed to work in the bedroom. It has an alarm clock, clock radio, and since many people would rather wave than talk at Alexa, it has a permanently on camera designed to be pointed at your bed.

    George, whose telephones without exception have push buttons, except the one that has as God intended a rotary dial; They are all attached to the wall with wires as is the computer. I have ethernet cables, not a wireless rooter. . My thermostats are mercury contact, and almost always work.

      1. Makes it harder to eavesdrop. (Remembering neighbor who left a guest account open, and somebody used up his monthly satellite bandwidth watching movies.) I find the off-switch on my WiFi to be quite useful. 🙂

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