Security

Why the Internet of Things is a double-edged sword

Illustration picture.

Illustration picture.  (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Everything will eventually be interconnected online — at least, that's the dream. Dubbed the Internet of Things, turning dumb devices like thermostats and lights into “smart” objects offer a new level of convenience for consumers. But it can also lead to problems.

After the last couple of weeks, however, consumers are probably wondering just how intelligent these new gadgets are. A spate of outages in smart home and related devices virtually shut down everything from door locks, garage doors, Internet phones, lights, and security systems.

The most astounding failure, something I haven't seen in decades of testing everything from cars to computers, occurred with Wink. The company's primary product is a $50 wireless hub that works with a welter of devices using different standards and is able to control them all via a single app. Wink can integrate items such as Kidde smoke detectors, Nest thermostats, Dropcam cameras, and items such as door locks and garage door openers.

During a remote software update last month, Wink ran into a glitch, and it was a doozy. Not only was service interrupted, for many owners it effectively disabled the Wink hub -- permanently. Connected devices — door locks and lights — could no longer be accessed remotely, and the hub itself shut down.

Worse, the company was unable to remotely reset many of the hubs. Its solution: send the box back to Wink for repair. Not a good option for anyone remotely controlling a second home or away on business. A Wink spokesperson told FoxNews.com that approximately 25 percent of Wink users were affected and about 10 percent of owners could not reset their hubs.

With companies such as Apple, Google, and Samsung also working to integrate smart home devices, one can reasonably wonder what would happen should a similar software glitch affect such systems in the future. Millions of homes could effectively go out of service. It's not just some fanciful idea from a dystopian sci-fi movie.

Following Wink's failures, two other prominent companies with designs on the Internet of Things space — Chamberlain and Ooma - experienced outages.

Some owners of Chamberlain remotely controlled MyQ compatible garage door openers (which also happen to work with Wink) received false messages that their garage doors were being opened - no doubt causing consternation among some that their homes were being broken into. Chamberlain recognized the problem immediately and was able to resolve it within hours. (The company told FoxNews.com that the glitch was unrelated to Wink's problems.)

Then popular Internet phone company Ooma, whose $110 Telo box can replace a landline phone and its monthly fees, also sent out a mass email from the company's CEO apologizing for disruptions in its VoIP phone service. Thankfully, those issues were quickly fixed, as well, without any intervention required from owners.

Certainly, no service is perfect. Verizon habitually knocks out my landline and inexplicably hangs up on calls. Cable TV outages are common, and computers have a long tradition of crashing. But the confluence of failures last month involving what most of us would consider essential services — home security and safety — gives one reason to pause.

Could the Internet of Things present a new era in failure?

Consider mobile payment systems, such as Apple Pay, that are being pushed now. All it would take is one major outage - or hack - and people could lose millions of dollars. Some people worry about autonomous cars, also part of the Web of Internet connected devices. There is little doubt that systems like automatic braking can save lives and improve safety. However, many automotive engineers worry that a single system failure that results in a crash could set the industry back a decade.

The Internet of Things could lead to increased safety, convenience, and even help reduce fuel consumption. The current danger is that as companies rush to grab market share, fighting to establish themselves as the Facebook of the Internet of Things, security and stability are being given short shrift.  

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.