How the new Internet will mess things up for you

Krish Ashok
Grist Media

The Internet is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. You may think it's a whole lot of information – like the amount you might find in a really large library – but that is not just peanuts compared to the Internet, it’s not even a few atoms in one peanut.

The amount of information on the Internet, if one is still interested in bookish metaphors, is described thus by John Barrett, a researcher at the Cork Institute of Technology. It is estimated that there are 4,000 exabytes of information on the Internet. If you are thinking: I used to buy megabytes, then gigabytes, and now my neighbourhood electronics store sells me terabyte hard disks, so surely in a little while I should be able to do exabytes? The short answer? No.

An exabyte is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. (You get the drift.) If you stack books one on top of the other starting from the surface of the Earth, the amount of information in 4,000 exabytes will take that stack all the way from Earth to Pluto. And back. 80 times over. If you just went, “Hmm, okay,” then don’t worry. Numbers larger beyond a point stop affecting us because, well, we can’t really believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big they are.

But all of this is about to change. For the worse.

Till about 10 years ago, the only things connected to the Internet and creating this massive torrent of information were computers. In 2007, with the introduction of the iPhone, smartphones went on to become the most ubiquitous things online. It is estimated that there will be about 1.4 billion smartphones in the world by the end of this year – about one phone for every five people in the world.

And if you thought you were tiring of people putting photos of cats, cupcakes and angry tweets against people who don’t like Mr Modi on the Internet, imagine this: in a few years, every thing, every little object – from your earring to your car – will go online.

It’s called the Internet of Things (or the Internet of Everything), and along with 3D printing, it will change our lives in unimaginable ways.

There are two aspects of this phenomenon. The first is connectivity and the second is sensor networks. It isn’t just enough to connect something to the Internet. It needs to sense something about itself or the world around it, and put that information online for other systems to use.

Even right now, unbeknownst to yourself, your smartphone is probably sending your current location to a central system that secretly notifies your spouse about your geographical lies. In fact, forget tech-unsavvy and reckless smartphone users, there is even a product called FlexiSPY that, installed on your phone, pretty much submits (to the spy) a detailed report that J Edgar Hoover would have been impressed with. With FlexiSPY, you can listen to someone’s phone calls, read their texts, see what they do online, track their location and even bug their rooms.

Let’s generalize this a bit. You take an innocent, everyday object and ask yourself the question: “Can this object possibly benefit from being connected to the Internet?”

If the answer is yes (or no), you then ask the question: “What information can it send to the cloud that can be processed and sent back as more useful information?”

Here’s an example. A pressure sensor on your Internet-enabled office chair could notify you when your devious colleagues use it without your permission. It could, alternatively, deploy spikes and switch on auditory flatulence simulators built in your currently purloined chair. More usefully, a small array of bio-sensors embedded inside your body could give you real-time data and analytics on how easy you should go on that pav bhaji.

In fact, you don’t even have to wait for the near future for all this. The Nest thermostat, designed by the father of the iPod, Tony Fadell, who went on to found Nest Labs, uses an array of sensors, weather forecasts and actual activity in a house to optimize its energy usage. The Cobra Tag fixes what is perhaps humanity’s greatest time sink – searching for lost keys – using a combination of Bluetooth and a smartphone app. And HarvestGeek essentially replaces your gardener and uses a suite of air, soil and water sensors to keep your plants happy.

So the next time you read advertising spiel that misuses the adjective ‘smart’ as a prefix to anything from an electrical grid to a condom (breakage could cause it to post a calendar-reminder for a pregnancy test in the next few days), you will know that this is all already mainstream.

This is going to be one of those things that will simply sneak up on you. Just as how you are probably not entirely sure how much personal information your smartphone is sending to the cloud, pretty soon you will probably not know if someone is recording you using an Internet-connected wearable device like Google Glass. And like a teenage son who comes home to announce that he is joining the thousands of Indians who’ve decided to take a one-way trip to Mars, some of the social and business impacts of all this will be quite disruptive.

Your self-driven smart car connects to the Internet to figure out the route to Chor Bazaar? Your insurance company, which is connected to your car in order to insure it, would like to have a word with you on that choice of location and its impact on your future premium. Think that’s a bit too much?

Progressive, an American insurer, already offers something called Snapshot – a small sensor-rich device that plugs into your car and, for 30 days, records everything about your driving habits; this data can then either save (or cost) you insurance premiums. Right now, this is an opt-in feature. In the future, cars will already be doing this and the opt-out feature may well disappear.

In a very short time in mankind’s history, the concept of privacy has gone from a really solid piece of an oak tree with two hinges and one lock to that unusable monstrosity that is the Facebook privacy settings page. A PhD is required before you can reasonably be sure that your wild party pictures aren’t seen by your landlady, who could decide to evict you.

Our politicians ultimately decide policies and legal frameworks that prevent abuse – and so far, they are largely clueless about all this. The fear is that they will misunderstand the phenomenon once more and either cripple progress or completely overlook the real dangers. We had better hope that we understand the implications of this trend better than our politicians can. Otherwise we are in for a big mess. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big that mess could end up being.

Krish Ashok is an IT consultant, columnist and amateur musician who blogs at http://krishashok.wordpress.com. Follow him at https://twitter.com/krishashok