Chipping away at the opposition, a Wisconsin company plans to implant its employees with microchips.

I’ve blogged before about how micro-chipping has been morphing from appliances and pets to people.

But not without opposition.  Earlier this year, it was reported that lawmakers the state of Nevada had introduced legislation that would make it a felony to require a person to be implanted with microchips such as an RFID (radio frequency identification) or NFC (near field communication) devices.

Nevada isn’t the only state legislature to take up the issue, as similar legislation has already been passed in North Dakota, Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin and – how come we are not surprised? – California.

But now comes word that at least one company is quite publicly thumbing its nose at the state of Wisconsin by offering implanted chip technology to all of its employees.

Beginning in August, River Falls-based Three Square Market (32M) will be implanting all willing employees with an RFID chip. Reportedly, this will allow these employees to purchase items in the company’s break room, as well as to log on to computers, open locked doors on the company premises, and to use copy machines.

[For those who may not know, River Falls is located near the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and is also home to one of the University of Wisconsin’s more notable tech campuses.]

As many as 50 employees of 32M are expected to participate in the scheme, in what is claimed to be the first employee micro-chipping program implemented in the United States.

As it turns out, there’s a little more than just altruism behind 32M’s program. The company operates in a market segment that’s naturally aligned with chip technology.

More specifically, 32M is a key player in the so-called “micro market” – also known as the break room market — wherein mini-convenience store kiosks that are installed in employee break rooms feature self-checkout functionality.

32M sells micro market technology, while operating more than 2,000 kiosks in 20 countries around the world.

According to Tony Danna, 32M’s vice president of sales, one of the reasons for embarking on the microchip implantations is his company’s desire to have first-hand experience working with the technology, which it offers in addition to more conventional RFID payment solutions such as rings and wrist bands.

In other words, it isn’t a “forced march.”  And while 32M is at it, the company is getting more than its share of publicity out of the gambit.

Mr. Danna pushes back against the notion that microchips and the data they contain are an invasion of privacy, insisting that the microchips are not trackable and “anyone can pop it out, like a splinter.”

Of course, credit card information can be stored on the chip — and likely a whole lot more.

Despite any reservations that recalcitrant employees – or state legislators in Wisconsin – might have, 32M is moving ahead and planning for a “chip party” at the company’s headquarters in early August.

No word if any other kinds of chips – such as of the corn or potato variety – plan to be served up as well during the event.

The downside dangers of IoT: Overblown or underestimated?

In recent weeks, there has been an uptick in articles appearing in the press about the downside risks of the Internet of Things (IoT). The so-called “Weeping Angel” technique, which essentially allows hackers to turn a smart television into a microphone, is one eyebrow-raising example included from the CIA files released by WikiLeaks recently. Another is the potential for hacking into the systems of autonomous vehicles, enabling cargo to be stolen or the vehicles themselves to be held for ransom.

Some of it seems like the stuff of science fiction – or at the very least a modern form of cloak-and-dagger activity. Regular readers of the Nones Notes blog know that when we’re in the midst of a “collective angst” about a topics of this nature, I like to solicit the views of my brother, Nelson Nones, who has been in the fields of IT and operations management for decades.

I asked Nelson to share his perspectives on IoT, what he sees are its pitfalls, and whether the current levels of concern are justified. His comments are presented below:

Back in 1998, I was invited to speak about the so-called “millennium bug” (also known as the “Y2K bug”) at a symposium in Kuching, Malaysia. It was a hot topic at that time, because many computer systems then in use hadn’t been designed or built to deal with calendar dates beyond the end of the 20th century.  

The purpose of my presentation was to educate the audience about the nature of the problem, and how to mitigate it. During the question-and-answer session which followed, a member of the audience rose and began to speak rather hysterically of the threat which the millennium bug posed to civilization as we knew it.  

His principal concern was the millions of embedded sensors and controllers in use throughout industry which were not programmable and would therefore need to be replaced. In his view, very few people knew which of those devices were susceptible to the millennium bug, or where they were running.  

As a result, he felt that many flawed devices would go undetected, causing critical infrastructures such as power generation plants, electricity grids and aircraft to fail.  

Needless to say, his dire predictions did not come to pass and humankind sailed into the 21st century with barely a murmur. This isn’t to say that the millennium bug wasn’t a real threat – it certainly was – but rather that providers and users of information technology (IT) mostly did what was necessary to prepare for it.  As Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported in April 2000, “In truth, there have been bug incidents … none of this, however, adds up to global recession, or infrastructure collapse, or accidental nuclear war, as the most heated prophets were anticipating.”  

It is for similar reasons that I take much of today’s hype over security vulnerabilities of IoT with more than a pinch of salt. 

It’s worth noting that, technologically speaking, IoT isn’t really very new at all. As the prophet of doom at my 1998 symposium (correctly) observed, sensors, software, actuators and electronic controllers have been integral components of automated industrial systems for the past thirty years at least.   

What’s new is that these technologies have begun to be accepted and deployed by consumers. I say “begun” because I don’t know anyone who has actually rigged a “smart home” to work in the all-encompassing way breathlessly envisioned by purveyors of home automation technology; but I do know people who use the technology for specific purposes such as home security, thermostat control and recording TV programs.  

Just last week I spoke with someone who is beta testing a self-driving Tesla automobile, but he confessed that he still won’t take his hands off the wheel because he doesn’t really trust the self-driving technology yet.  

What’s also new is that businesses are extending their use of sensors and controllers well beyond the confines of plants, factories and warehouses. For example, trucking companies routinely use global positioning system (GPS) sensors to monitor fleet locations in real-time.  

Aircraft engine makers such as Rolls-Royce and GE rely on management and monitoring systems to transmit information from sensors to ground stations for real time analysis, during flight.  Many problems which are detected in this manner can be instantly corrected during flight, by relaying instructions back to controllers and actuators installed on the engine.  

The common denominator for what’s new is the use of existing Internet infrastructure; hence the “I” in “IoT.”  

In earlier times, sensors, software and electronic controllers could communicate only through local area networks (LANs) which were physically isolated and therefore impermeable to external attacks. But when those devices are connected to the public Internet, in theory anyone can access them — including cyber-criminals and governments engaged in sabotage or espionage, or who want to hold things for ransom, surreptitiously watch live feeds, or deploy botnets for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.  

It is clear, therefore, that the root causes of privacy and security concerns arising from increasing IoT usage are mainly network security lapses, and not the things themselves.

Ensuring the highest possible degree of network security is no easy task. Above and beyond arcane technical details such as encryption, installing network firewalls, and opening and closing of ports, it means deploying multiple layers of defenses according to specific policies and controls, and that requires skills and knowledge which most consumers, and even many businesses, do not possess. 

Still, one doesn’t have to be a network geek to implement basic security mechanisms that far too many people overlook. In search of easy pickings, cyber-criminals usually prefer to exploit the huge number of unlocked doors begging for their attention, rather than wasting time trying to penetrate even slightly stronger defenses.   

For example, many people install wireless networks in their homes but forget to change the default router password and default network name (SSID) – or they pick a password that’s easy to guess. In addition, many people leave their network “open” to anyone having a wireless card by failing to implement a security key such as a WPA, WPA2 or WEP key, or by choosing a weak security key.   

An attacker can discover those lapses in a matter of seconds, or less, giving them full administrative authority and control over the compromised network with little risk of detection. This, in turn, would give the attacker immediate access to, and remote control over, any device on the network which is switched on but does not require authentication; for example, network printers, data storage devices, cameras, TVs and personal computers (PCs) which are not configured to require a user logon. 

Plugging those security holes doesn’t require specialist knowledge and shouldn’t take more than an hour for most home networks. Recognizing the security concerns, an increasing number of hardware and software vendors are preconfiguring their products in “full lockdown” mode, which provides basic security by default and requires users to apply specialist knowledge in order to open up their networks as necessary for greater convenience.  

This is precisely what Microsoft did over a decade ago, with great success, in response to widely publicized security vulnerabilities in its Windows® operating system and Internet Explorer browser. 

It’s all too easy to imagine the endgames of hypothetical scenarios in which the bad apples win by wresting control over the IoT from the good guys. But just like the millennium bug nearly two decades ago, it is wiser to heed the wisdom of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, published back in 1927:  

“Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery … but do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.”  

Going forward, I’m confident that a healthy dose of risk intelligence, and not fear, will prove to be the key for successfully managing the downside aspects of IoT.

_________________________

So those are Nelson’s views on the Internet of Things. What about you?  Are you in agreement, or are there aspects about which you may think differently?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Microchips migrate to people … and the legislators struggle to catch up.

mcrExpanding beyond their use in applications like IoT household appliances and pet location tracking, sensors and chips are now being embedded in people, too.

Last fall, The Wall Street Journal reported that as many as 50,000 microchips designed for people have been sold globally.  Each microchip kit includes a tag and an injection tool, and is priced at around $100.

More Australians have had chip implants than in any other country, but significant numbers of other people in European nations like Sweden and the Benelux countries have also stepped up to the plate for implants.

According to what I hear, the chip embedding process is easy and painless, as the devices are very small – not much bigger in size than a grain of rice.

But not everyone is thrilled about this latest “turn of technology.” And as a result – and hardly surprising – politicians are starting to become involved.

In a move aimed at trying to put the microchip genie back into the bottle, lawmakers in the state of Nevada have introduced legislation that would make it a felony to require a person to be implanted with microchips such as an RFID (radio frequency identification) or NFC (near field communication) devices.

The legislation doesn’t seek to outlaw the practice – but rather to make it illegal to mandate any such activities targeting any single individual.

Under certain circumstances, I can see how micro-chipping a person could not only be beneficial, it could be a life-saver. Consider situations where people are potentially in danger of kidnapping, or susceptible to violence from spousal threats.

No major opposition to the Nevada bill has been logged – so far. Still, I can’t help but think that this is yet another lame legislative attempt to restrain the inexorable march of technology — one that will come up woefully short.

Water finds its own level – and that’s never more true than in the realm of technological advancements.

But what are your own thoughts pro or con?  Please share your views with other readers here.

Internet-connected TVs now dominate the market.

ictvRecently I blogged about how many Americans are now living in cellphone-only households.

Bottom-line:  It’s a major percentage.

A parallel development is the extent of Internet-connected TVs that are now in place in U.S. households. According to a recent survey of ~2,000 U.S. adult broadband users by The Diffusion Group, Internet-connected TV penetration has now risen to 74%.

This chart shows the penetration trends over the past four years:

  • 2013 Internet-connected TV penetration: ~50%
  • 2014: ~61%
  • 2015: ~70%
  • 2016: ~74%

What these figures show is that almost three fourths of U.S. households now have an Internet-connectable television, which is up about 50% since 2013.

With more consumers wanting to set up their own in-home networks, TV manufacturers saw this trend developing and began flooding the retail market with “smart” televisions. As a result, most any consumer looking to purchase a TV set these days is likely to end up with one that is Internet-connectable, whether they feel they need it or not.

This is a back door into the world of consumer IoT; both the TV and the smartphone are the prime facilitators for the adoption of the Internet of Things in the home.

But like with many other technological waves, actual adoption rates can lag. For many people, watching TV on Internet-connected equipment is still only “potential” viewing rather than actual viewing.  Just as some consumers who own the latest smartphone models never use them to watch videos, homes that replace a TV set with the latest Internet-connectable model don’t necessarily use the added built-in functionality — at least initially.

Still, one suspects that with this technology now at people’s fingertips, it won’t be much longer before we start seeing actual usage catch up with the potential that’s there.

Thanks to IOT, search is morphing into “just-in-time knowledge.”

aeIn today’s world of marketing, it’s been obvious for some time that the pace of technological change is dramatically shortening the life cycle of marketing techniques.

Consider online search. Twenty-five years ago it was hardly a blip on the radar screen.  Picking up momentum, paid search soon began to rival traditional forms of advertising, as companies took advantage of promo programs offered by Google and others that aligned neatly with consumers when they were on the hunt for products, services and solutions..

Google has attracted billions upon billions of dollars in search advertising revenue, becoming one of the biggest corporations in the world, even as entire industries have grown up around optimizing companies’ website presence and relevance so as to rank highly in search query results.

And now, thanks to continuing technology evolution and the emergence of the Internet of Things, the next generation of search is now upon us – and it’s looking likely to make keyboards and touchscreens increasingly irrelevant within a few short years.

afhSearches without screens are possible thanks to technology like Google Assistant, Amazon Echo/Alexa, and software development kits from providers like Soundhound and Microsoft.

This past October, market forecasting firm Gartner came out with an interesting prediction: Within four years, it forecasts that ~30% of all searches will be carried out without a screen.

It’s happening already, actually. In web search, Amazon Echo answers voice queries, while the Bing knowledge and action graph allows Microsoft to provide answers to queries rather than a set of answer possibilities in the form of links as has been the case up to now.

Gartner envisions voice interactions overtaking typing in search queries because it is so much easier, faster and more intuitive for consumers. By eliminating the need for people to use eyes and hands for search and browsing, voice interactions improve the utility of web sessions even while multitasking takes on ever-increasing degrees of shared activity (walking, driving, socializing, exercising and the like).

Related to this, Gartner also predicts that one in five brands will have abandoned offering mobile apps by 2019. Already, many companies have found disappointing levels of adoption, engagement and ROI pertaining to the mobile apps they’ve introduced, and the prognosis is no better going forward; the online consumer is already moving on.

Gartner’s predictions go even further. It envisions ever-higher levels of what it calls “just-in-time knowledge” – essentially trading out searching for knowledge by simply getting answers to voice queries.

Speaking personally, this prediction concerns me a little. I think that some people may not fully grasp the implications of what Gartner is forecasting.

To me, “just-in-time knowledge” sounds uncomfortably close to being “ill-educated” (as opposed to “uneducated”).  Sometimes, knowing a little bit about something is more dangerous than knowing nothing at all. Bad decisions often come from possessing a bit of knowledge — but with precious little “context” surrounding it.

With “just-in-time knowledge,” think of how many people could now fall into that kind of trap.