A stroll through any electrical retailer or department store provides all the evidence you need that the internet of things is here and on sale for £50. For that, you get a device that, in the words of the manufacturer, “keeps you connected to your home lighting anywhere you are over Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G networks”. In other words, use your mobile phone to turn the living room lights on and off. I can almost imagine the scenario where I am on holiday relaxing on the patio of my Tuscan holiday villa, glass of Chianti in hand, remembering that I need to turn on the lights at home to deter burglars, then struggling to find the mobile signal to do this. Maybe the trusty timer light will remain in service for a while longer.
Of course that example trivialises what is undoubtedly going to be a powerful capability. Many businesses are now starting to add smart services to what are traditionally thought of as dumb mechanical devices in order to establish and deepen relationships with their customers. The reality of this really came home to me the other week when I received an e-mail from my garage.
Normally the only e-mail I get from the garage is along the lines of “Dear Mr McAulay. Your annual service is now due. Phone us for an appointment”. This one was much more intriguing as it encouraged me to set up an ID and log on to a portal, where I found all the details of my car’s service history. Nice, but nothing particularly ground-breaking. More intriguing was the free offer allowing me to access my car from my mobile phone. If I signed up, I would get up-to-date information from the car on the amount of fuel left in the tank or on the car’s current location, for example. Now this was stuff I could use! The service would remind me that I needed to allow an extra ten minutes of journey time to refuel or help me remember where I left the car in the airport car park. The service offer didn’t stop there. It also allowed me to control some of the car’s functions remotely from my phone, such as turning on the heating and unlocking the car doors.
I had no idea that this sort of thing was possible. But once a car has satellite navigation with live traffic update, it has a mobile phone chip built in and a means of sending and receiving information. It then takes nothing more than a software update to link this capability to the car’s electronic systems, which provides a means of accessing more or less everything in the car.
I was very close to saying yes to the offer, when a nagging doubt came into my mind. Do I trust these people?
Setting aside the fact that some car brands may be lying about their pollutant emissions, my question was more to do with security. Although I trusted the car brand to deliver a safe, well-engineered piece of machinery, could I be sure that they knew how to handle my data securely? Sadly, I didn’t feel that the bland small print disclaimer on the website gave me sufficient reason to trust their abilities in this area, particularly when the consequences of failure would be more serious than a hacker being able to turn my living room lights on and off. Being good at automotive engineering is no guarantee that you understand the ins and outs of cyber security.
I might be being overcautious on this. But if businesses are truly embracing digital and building up relationships with customers as service providers, they will need to address the question of where their expertise truly lies and to what degree customers trust them. Being a trusted mechanic is very different to being a trusted IT service provider. I think it is going to take a lot of time and effort for firms that aren’t digital natives to convince their customers that they understand IT security as well as they understand mechanical engineering.