by Saverio Romeo, Associate Lecturer on Emerging Digital Technologies Management and Policy, Birkbeck – University of London
The raison d’etre of machine to machine communications (M2M) was monitoring remotely machines and devices that represent assets, initially to see if they were on or off, then to see their life and that everything was functioning properly. The IoT takes that monitoring further. It brings in more detailed views of the life of the assets and people using them. It looks at the space where the assets are located. It also enables actions on the assets and on the space. And, in convergence with other technology framework, it looks at the future behaviour of the assets, the dynamics of the space in which the assets are located, and prepare for actions in the future if necessary. The IoT community has shaped itself around remotely monitoring, controlling, predicting and acting. That community has flourished with that frame of mind. With Covid-19, that way of dealing with assets, places, and people is almost becoming a common thing. Part of the Covid-19 containing strategies are based on monitoring.
Monitoring the spread of the virus. Identifying a person affected by the virus and tracking the network of that person to check if person’s peers are also affected is at the base of mobile applications currently use to control and understand the spread of the virus.
Monitoring the conditions of people at home. The challenge on healthcare institutions has emphatically revamped the need of home caring and the remote relationships between healthcare professionals and patients.
Monitoring spaces and social distancing. The rule of social-distancing has not always been followed. Monitoring technologies are used to see if that new map of social movements is actually happening.
Monitoring machines. There has been a physical security need to monitor mechanical assets. But, in some cases, that need was not just justified by security, but also by the fact that certain manufacturing machines cannot simply switch off – an example is the textile industry.
Monitoring pollution levels. Scientists are observing and exploring the various relationships between pollution and Covid-19 crisis. The satellite pictures of clean skies and the pictures of the blue canals in Venice, where fishes are back, are driving a strong desire for better managing pollution in our communities through a deep monitoring of the levels of pollutants.
The IoT frame of mind can be very useful in those areas and in the entire management of the Covid-19 crisis, which does not end at the end of the lockdowns. But nothing is simple as it appears. There are challenges to clearly understand. Two of those need to be highlighted.
Privacy. There is the issue of privacy. We should not move towards a “surveillance state”. Ethics and rights need to guide us.
Security. Unsecure monitoring means not monitoring and disruptions. The cybersecurity community needs to guide us.
Those two challenges are also becoming more evident to the public. The use of collaboration tools is not just for remote working, but also for virtual kids’ gatherings, virtual pub quizs, and virtual glasses of wine. Recently, the episodes of hacking of these virtual gatherings are multiplying. The sudden appearance of violent or unsuitable content on people screens is showing the vulnerabilities of our digital systems and the disruption of our world that that allows. It is the time to exploit this unfortunate moment to take the legislation and the investment on privacy and security at a priority level.