Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Internet of Us

It'll all be OK, little guy. 

It's Not Me, It's You

I've been analyzing and building Internet of Things technology since 2009. At the time, my wife Jessica and I were living in a condo building in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Nick DePetrillo and I had just started working on The Carmen San Diego project, and I was just launching my career at iSEC Partners after leaving a failing security practice elsewhere. It was a stressful but exciting time. 

One of the ways I dealt with the stress was learning how to solve community problems with technology. Our condo building was tall, and the stairs were common "hotel style" stairwells, not optimal for travel in any scenario. Living on the seventh floor, we opted to take the elevators like everyone else. Normally this would not invite any kind of concern, except that we lived with Jessica's 80 pound golden doodle, Jasper. 

By a court of law!
Jasper is a great guard dog. He's as beautiful as he is vicious, and he is exceptional at protecting us from falling leaves, marauding squirrels, and even actual creepers lurking around Denver's parks. He's also quite disciplined. In elevators, he'd sit patiently and wait for the doors to open without a sound. Jessica did an excellent job of training him. 

The problem would come when the older residents of the condo would get into the elevator. Well, really, only two particular individuals. One was an older lady that enjoyed making a problem out of fading paint on the walls. She relayed to our door man that it was unacceptable for a dog to be in the elevator at the same time as she was. Ridiculous! The insolence of a couple with an approved dog traveling to and from their own condo! Unthinkable! 

I have a feeling that the woman was trying to somehow bully the condo board into allowing her exclusive access to an elevator. Seriously. Regardless, it presented an awkward problem as we didn't appreciate getting a complaint just for getting in the elevator with a dog that wasn't even behaving badly. 

No, Really. It's You.

My solution to this problem was tinkering. I attached a Zigbee module to an Atmel microcontroller, used an Electronic Assembly DOGS LCD screen, a few LEDs, and two LED-backlit push buttons. Result? I had a little mesh-based alerting system that would notify you if Jasper was in the elevator! 

The code was simple. As soon as I left my condo I could press the button on what I named the "Beagle Box" (I was unaware of the Beagle Bone at the time; don't hate). Pushing the button would send a message to all nodes in the mesh that Jasper would be in the elevator for the next 5 minutes. Either the "warning" would time out, or I could log in on another "Beagle Box" in the lobby. 

Class doesn't automatically come with age.
I never ended up deploying the box, because designing it made me realize that there was an easier solution to my problem. I could simply record a few videos of Jasper behaving perfectly in an elevator with other tenants. Then, I wouldn't have to bother maintaining equipment or debug RF signaling issues throughout the building. 

Point being, I found a social method for diffusing the problem. But, the technology itself made me realize a few key things about the Internet of Things. 

First, people that are eager to create problems can be exposed by technology that disputes their manipulative or sociopathic point of view. 

Second, real community problems can be isolated, evaluated, and potentially mitigated through cost-effective and practical technology. 

It Can Be Us.

I don't see the Internet of Things as just another trend in technology. I see IoT as the next generation of the Internet. But, the Internet is no longer about desktops and servers and intangible opaque applications. The Internet is about Us. We'll be living in the Internet of Us, and we need to think about how to build for Us, not I. Not the 1%. Not the Silicon Valley VC pool. Us. 

And Us isn't easy, is it? Us includes a population that isn't as technologically savvy as my peers. According to Pew Research, one in four teens solely uses a mobile phone to access the Internet. In fact, Pew goes on to state that teens in lower income socio-economic groups are even more likely to use their mobile phone as their primary Internet access point. 

Why is this important? Twenty-five percent (25%) of teens lack access to the Internet in their home, which is why they are focusing on their mobile phone as their pivot point to the Internet. Only half of teens have access to smart phones, which drastically changes the content that teens access, especially at-risk teens. This means they aren't coding. They aren't learning shell commands. They're not even learning about web technology. They're information sinks. 

A much more profound game of telephone is happening right now.
If IoT is going to solve community problems, IoT must be ready to solve the communications issue as well as the socio-academic gap. Communications technology will keep getting cheaper, and soon these numbers will be more representative of a largely connected population. But, we're just talking about USA. What happens when we expand to the Americas, Europe, Africa, and other evolving countries? How do we ensure technology is seamless, secure, and usable for all academic levels? 

That's quite the challenge, which is why technology usually focuses on a subset of the population. It's easier. And that's fine. But, focusing on easy to deliver platforms that enable 1% of the population doesn't solve community need and only widens the gap between the have's and have-not's. 

But First, I Need You. 

To solve these problems we need a cost-effective, secure, and agile platform for the Internet of Things. I am building one based on my research, and am in the middle stages of developing the proof of concept. However, the key metric for success, to me, isn't a snazzy new Thing that solves all our Facebook-connectivity-audio-enablement-bass-drop concerns. It's a thing that binds communities together and enables security, safety, and education. 

I *am* the music! Errr..
For example, have you heard of Shot Spotter? I've you've ever seen me give a talk on IoT, you've probably heard me bring it up. Shot Spotter detects gun shots in real time, and passes the information along to law enforcement. It can detect the caliber of a gun, direction of a shot, whether a shooter is moving (drive by), and more. That's excellent technology! But, it comes at a steep price. 

Unfortunately, a lot of communities that want to use Shot Spotter are struggling because they have much more immediate concerns to deal with. Detroit and Flint Michigan are having serious water treatment and infrastructure concerns, resulting in a massive increase in the price of water bills. Do you think the city wants to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a gun shot detection system when basic services are at risk? 

Ominous raven agrees: expensive technology is scary!
What if a secure open source version of the same technology could be built with a simple to use and cost-effective platform? What if we could help secure cities for dollars instead of millions? We can. Internet of Things technology can enable this, but only with the right minds working together. 

I want to bring together lawyers, law enforcement, technologists, city planners, and members of communities to discuss tangible issues that can be addressed with a cross-section of open-source technology, IoT, and information security. The goal isn't to disrupt cities, but to help them restructure their foundation. 

Want to help? Contact me at Lab Mouse Security. As I build the IoT platform, we can find ways to use it for more than the next generation of the Bluetooth speaker. We can change lives for the better. 

Lab Mouse Security

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