An IoT Primer from a Father of the Internet

Vinton Cerf offers some words of caution and optimism.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The long view on data security:
There is much hand-wringing over how well or poorly various platforms and devices, from industrial applications all the way to fitness trackers for consumers, are handling data security. Cerf noted that there's a good reason for that concern: The Internet itself, at least the consumer-facing side of it, was built on a platform not designed for security.

"Personal computers were not meant to be interconnected," Cerf said. Plus, malware was born well before the Internet. Back then, he noted, malware was propagated when diskettes carrying infected code would be shared between one computer user and another. Much of this malware simply created silly results, like a special effect on a video game that made the screen look like it was melting.

It is impossible, of course, for designers of today's computing devices to consider every potential actuality or pitfall, or to safeguard against technologies that do not yet even exist. But the evolution of personal computing and early data infections holds cautionary tales for how important it is to think about, and then test, a system's vulnerabilities before—not after—deploying it.

Healthy Returns:
Cerf said he is especially bullish about the potential for the IoT to innovate how health care is administered, and he cited a few specific examples related to medical devices. "Having devices online lets you manage something on a continual basis," he explained. "For medical devices, this means you can establish a record of what is normal, to see what is not normal." When most of us go to see a doctor, we're sick. So the picture he or she sees of our health is not representative of our everyday health baseline. Using wearable devices to track your vitals, and then store this data in a place where your physicians can securely access it, could give the doctors a better understanding of the system that is your personal health, This would enable them to take a more big-picture approach to treating any given illness you might experience.

Another example of how continuous monitoring could be used in health care, Cerf said, is a current Google project in which the company is developing a contact lens with an integrated glucose monitor, to track the amount of glucose in a user's tears. "You can get the same information from tears as you'd get by taking a blood sample, but you'd get it continuously," he said, noting that this could greatly help diabetics micromanage their sugar levels—without needles.

On governance:
Cerf was asked about the role of government regulation and how we can grow the Internet of Things in a way that improves society—that is, how we can better daily lives or business processes without sacrificing basic rights to privacy and security. Cerf, who has lived in the Washington, D.C., area for most of his adult life, said the real problem is that "few members of Congress have any real technical background," and that, therefore, "some of us [technologists] are going to have to bite the bullet and run for Congress."

Cerf quickly added, however, that he's not starting a run for office.

It would probably be hard to give up that sweet gig at Google, after all.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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