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How Government Can Avoid Rushing into IoT

If the Internet is going to creep out into the nooks and crannies of the world, there are some questions government will need to answer.

by / November 3, 2017
From left to right: Jeff Merritt, New York City Mayor's Office of Technology and Innovation; Bruce Milne, Pivot3 and Todd Davis, CenturyLink. Ben Miller/Government Technology

NEW YORK — Pedestrian- and car-counting smart cameras do not yet hang from the arms of every urban light fixture. Fleets of sensors do not yet cling to every piece of electric and water infrastructure, monitoring flows and highlighting future problems. Data streams into government, but not yet from every pore of cityscape ... yet.

But a panel at the New York City Technology Forum thinks that it’s coming, and government needs to start thinking about how it might handle such a world.

“We’ve seen a real dramatic shift in the last five years or so where the cost of computing, the cost of storage, the cost of connectivity are plummeting,” said Jeff Merritt, director of innovation for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation. “And what that means is that it is much easier with every passing year to just embed connectivity and intelligence into devices.”

But there are a lot of paths and potential problems to consider before heading into that world, and without thoughtful planning, government might run the risk of rushing into the Internet of Things (IoT) too fast.

“Data for the sake of data is not very helpful,” said Bruce Milne, chief marketing officer for Pivot3, during the panel discussion. “You need to be able to distill that and get information from an ultimately actionable insight. How do I take action on this? What have I learned from the data I’m getting … where I’m monitoring how many buses go through or how many cars go through?”

In other words, data analytics can help, but they need to be set up in the right way. A government needs to plan out what data it’s collecting, why it’s collecting it and what it wants to use that data for in order to drive the hardware and the software it will feed into.

It should also consider the way citizens will feel about that data collection. If it involves video, will that video show a person’s face? Their license plate? Other personal information?

“I do think we have to be very aware of what is the characteristics of the data that we’re collecting, and what are the implications for privacy and security?” said Merritt. “That is our number one job in government, is to protect the public. So, first and foremost we have to make sure that we are not jeopardizing privacy or opening up new vectors [of] security threats.”

For many applications, especially video, edge computing is one solution to that problem. With the Array of Things in Chicago, for example, cameras recognize objects and count them — but no video is actually stored anywhere. Rather, the nodes count the objects in the video frame and report that back to the central system.

As for the problem of cybersecurity, Todd Davis, vice president of field marketing for CenturyLink, said there are some methods emerging to help prevent unwanted hijacking of IoT devices.

“Infrastructure available today, connected to your network, connected to your cloud or private cloud infrastructure, can help avoid some of (those risks) by things like whitelisting. Things like using secure hardware IDs that say ‘OK, this device cannot be altered, it has a set image and I’m going to authenticate that device on a daily basis as part of a regular startup script,’” Davis said.

When an IoT device does collect personally identifiable information, there’s more to think about. For example, Milne pointed out, some countries have “right to be forgotten” laws.

“Imagine that impact if you are designing an IoT system that collects individual information about Todd, and Todd can contact you and say ‘Forget me,’” Milne said. “So what are the implications there and how would you actually implement that if that were to pass in the next five years?”

Then there’s the issue of networking — how to actually hook all the devices together in the best way.

“You don’t have to have a single form of connectivity, like just fiber connection everywhere at every smart meter,” Davis said. “You can use cognitive radio and wireless technology. 5G is gonna be incredibly impactful to the … easier collection and capacity of these endpoint devices.”

Those basic decisions, he said, could end up being important down the line when those devices are no longer shiny and new.

“I think that’s gotta be part of the design of the infrastructure, the network connectivity, from the start,” Davis said. “What is it today, what will it become and what, where and to who will it go based on a collaboration across disciplines? I think without that … you could overscale unnecessarily or have costs that are unsustainable or even go down a short-term technology path where you’re facing obsolescence later because some new technology has wiped it out.”

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Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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