en

The VICE Channels

    Image: /Shutterstock

    When the Internet of Things Starts to Feel Like the Internet of Shit

    Written by

    Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai

    Staff Writer

    If you listen to tech companies’ marketing reps, the future is made of internet connected devices that seamlessly talk to each other, as well as your smartphone, and turn your good-old house into a truly sci-fi-esque smart home where you don’t even need to think about turning up the heat or turning off the lights. Behold the shiny and intelligent future of the Internet of Things.

    What they don’t tell you is that as we put software into old-fashioned home appliances, there will be bugs that’ll make those appliances useless. The WiFi goes down? Put on a sweater because your smart thermostat might stop working. A lightbulb malfunctions? Your whole smart home stops working.

    And with bugs, there will be hackers ready to exploit them, either to creep out babies through hackable baby monitors, or to steal Gmail credentials through smart fridges. But that hasn’t stopped companies and questionable visionaries from imagining internet connected air fresheners, toilet paper holders, and even jump ropes.

    As more things from the Internet of Things start trickling into people’s homes, one Twitter account called “Internet of Shit” has been trying to shine a light into this bizarre and scary future with a steady stream of funny and smart (as in clever, not internet-connected) jokes.

    I chatted online with the man behind the account, who asked to remain anonymous and only be referred to as Internet of Shit, or IoS. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation, sprinkled with some of his best tweets.

    MOTHERBOARD: What can you tell me about you?
    Internet of Shit: I'm just a guy working as a developer in Europe at a software company. I guess about the exact kind of person you'd expect to run this kind of account, right?

    Do you work in cybersecurity?
    Not explicitly, but in earlier years I worked in Network Infrastructure and that was part of my responsibility, particularly post-incident patch up.

    Your parody account has amassed 35,000 followers in just a few months. What do you think of this almost viral success?
    I’m honestly surprised this IoS thing went beyond a niche joke.

    Why?
    Well, at first I started the account out of my own frustration with dealing with this crap. I have maybe six or seven IoT devices at home—sort of unintentionally—and dealing with them disconnecting, resetting themselves or just doing something weird was driving me crazy. I started this thing and somehow tech people really resonated with it, which was when I kinda realized the whole experience is just so bad right now.

    I genuinely do think it's useful some of the time, but honestly it's just amusing how stupid half of this junk hitting the market is. I assume at some point there will be a shakeout and IoT actually might become less prevalent, but for now we're in that "let's shove it in anywhere it'll fit" phase.

    That's a fair description of the status quo. You said "it's useful some of the time." Can you think of an example from your IoT devices?
    Sure, I mean, I think a thermostat is the most obvious option, but it's kinda messed up right now as everyone's figuring out what it should do. My thermostat uses my phone's location to figure out if it should heat the house based on how far away I am. It works pretty well for the most part and I like it a lot. I also have one of those sleep tracker things that attaches to your pillow and tells you how you're doing over time. I think it's the one I have the least trouble with and is probably one of the more interesting applications because it's a new category rather than just putting internet in an existing thing to upsell.

    “I assume at some point there will be a shakeout and IoT actually might become less prevalent.“

    I didn't even know about sleep smart trackers. What other IoT devices do you own?
    I have a smart home alarm, the Canary, and one of those stupid WiFi meat thermometers. LOL. The problem being in IT is getting random terrible gadgets at Christmas. I guess Sonos is technically IoT too, along with my TV.

    So you're not an anti-IoT guy at all.
    I definitely don't hate IoT, there's some legitimate uses. But hell, most people are fucking it up pretty bad. And some of the applications are mind boggling. Then you have this whole fight for who controls the platform.

    What are the worst examples? Who are you thinking about when you say most people are fucking it up pretty bad and the mind boggling applications?
    For the “fucking it up” part, here's an example. My thermostat doesn't work in a number of scenarios: 1) The internet goes down; 2) The temperature sensor loses radio signal; 3) The thing becomes unpaired. There's no backup—if I can't get it fixed, no heat. I think I spent countless hours trying to fix various permutations of that. It's these solutions that are like 60 percent of the way there, but haven't thought of the most basic scenario: will this gadget work if the connection is down?

    In terms of the mind-boggling applications, it's when you start to see these things with chips in them that make little sense. Weighing scales that have chips in them but don't connect! Or, even better, a water bottle that has an app because reasons. It's like, why?!? I assume it's an upsell thing.

    Can you think of a good reason why a water bottle might need an internet connection?
    Sure, I'm betting they're gunning for the people who literally don't remember to drink water on their own. But how big is that market? Did you really have to put a chip in it to solve? (Also please god don't put another whole app on my phone).

    How many apps do you have on your phone?
    Eight. Two of those are for lightbulbs, LOLOL. None of them talk to each other.

    Really? Two for light bulbs?
    Hue and LIFX.

    Why do you own internet connected light bulbs?
    I ask myself the same thing. Dumb curiosity, I guess?

    Do they work well?
    I mean, they're OK. I think it's like, a light bulb that sometimes you can change the color of lol. And it impresses people one time when you show them.

    Do you use it to impress your dates?
    Aahahahaha I tried it once, and the reaction was "you paid $79 to change the color of your lights" ಠ_ಠ

    How did you respond?
    Haha, I think trying to justify it with something about how they're great at parties ;P

    What's something that you wish was connected to the internet but still isn't?
    Oh shit, I hadn't thought of this before! If it was done right, maybe an oven? It has a lot of potential to be really useful—I tell it what I'm cooking, it figures it out. It also has a lot of potential to be done completely wrong. There is this thing, but I am so skeptical. Not that it necessarily makes a recipe, but more that it can open up new ways of cooking. Adjusting the temperature dynamically based on the thing being cooked for optimal tastiness or not burning it at all.

    That'd be kinda useful. Does it need an internet connection for that though?
    Let's build it! Aaha. It depends, right? If you want to be limited on the recipes it ships with. I think the thing that irks me more than anything else about “The IoS” is it's a catch-all excuse to add "smarts" to stuff that might not necessarily need them. I bet if I google "smart iron" right now it exists.

    It does.
    And fundamentally there's another platform war going on behind the scenes to own the thing that runs on it, or the thing it connects to.

    Can you tell me more about this platform thing and why it's a big deal?
    Right now you have this new turf war, almost like Android v iOS v whoever all over again, because everyone wants to own the fabric that connects these things together. The big ones I can think of off hand are Google Brillo, Apple HomeKit, Oracle IoT, and even that Logitech one. The IoT makers realized recently that building out infrastructure and connectivity is both expensive and a utter pain in the ass to maintain, so they're looking for these things to help them out as well.

    They're important, right, because one of the highest value things an IoT device can do is actually talk to other smart devices to figure things out. My thermostat could use my Canary to know if one end of the house is cold, or if there's been no movement there for a while. Maybe my thermostat's geo-presence could be used to switch on the lights. Whatever the example is, there has to be a way to wire them all up that isn't some disjointed thing like IFTTT doing the dirty work.

    Then there's the whole integration with your phone aspect too. I'd love to say “Hey Siri, it's cold in here” to my phone and for it to work, but of course Apple won't let me do that unless it's a HomeKit device.

    The whole other layer there is security, too, because I sure don't trust a random thermostat maker more than Google to keep my devices secure

    What about security and IoT? Should we be worried about it?
    Ohhhh yeah, so we haven't seen a “great” hack of any IoT devices yet I don't think, but I'd say it'll happen soon. So the ones going at it on their own are at greatest risk, since they're probably not resource-laden like Google or Apple might be.

    Apple has probably built the most interesting ecosystem around HomeKit, but it's kinda killing them short term. It seems to require physical hardware chips in the devices themselves to negotiate a secure connection. Google is a little more open. The problem with the unifying platforms is there's a wider vector, too, right? Suddenly all my gadgets are connected into one main control panel. What happens if someone gets in there? But hey, I'd rather trust Apple or Google over some proprietary system that Tado or Canary builds. That's the big risk with IoT right now too—how do I know my thermostat company isn't spying on me? They built their own platform so they can basically do whatever they want.

    What does a "great hack” of IoT devices look like? What's the cyber Pearl Harbor, if you will, of IoT?
    I was just trying to think of if you could call someone hacking in and messing with your thermostat a devastating hack, but it actually could be pretty bad. They could put it at full blast all the time while you're on holiday or something to try and burn out your boiler. Or someone gets into my Nest Camera and uses it to spy on the family and steal bank passwords or something. Just spit balling, but there's a number of scary scenarios—even when you connect everything into Brillo it could be worse. Imagine if there's a single place where someone could mess with your lights, fuck with your heating and set off the siren in your house all night long.

    It makes me think of that time Mat Honan was hacked and they fucked with him for a few hours before wiping everything. Imagine if an endpoint for my thermostat accidentally ended up on the front page of Reddit or something. It'd become "Twitch plays Internet of Shit's house."

    I was thinking of the cyber Pearl Harbor and that's kinda it, right? Like a hack of centralized devices in a single home. Say, five years from now everything from my shoes to my oven is connected and someone breaks in, Ashley Madison-style, and steals all the credentials, or whatever. Far fetched, but not insane. Then they've got free reign over someone's home. And I imagine it's hard to mitigate that other than unplugging!

    It reminds me of that IP camera company that had a huge exploit that meant a carefully crafted Google Search would get you on hundreds of unsecured streams of ANYWHERE in the world. It's my favorite thing in the world. All of these are real, live webcams, that never got secured.

    So that's like, the worst thing imaginable for this, right? Cameras are probably the scariest, but there's a lot you can do with someone's lightbulbs and wireless printer.

    What would you do to your worst enemy? If you could hack into his/her IoT stuff?
    Aahahahahah. If they had a Nest Cam, I think I'd start playing things over the intercom at random just to mess with them. If they had a thermostat, probably put it at full blast at stupid times. If it was Sonos, just play creepy recordings from YouTube in the middle of the night. Lol now I'm going to spend too much time wondering about this

    You must really not like your worst enemy.
    The worst hacks are always the ones that are slightly subtle.

    "The worst hacks are always the ones that are slightly subtle."

    I don't own any IoT devices. Which one should I buy first?
    Haha, I haven't put you off? And damn, I'm impressed it didn't just…happen. I think the one I got the most value from is the thermostat. It's stupid, but it is super cool to be able to make the room warm with your phone rather than one of those stupid programmer things. I think I like the idea of it because it brings modernity to a device that's classically been awful to deal with. Just make sure you don't cheap out and get one of the lower-end ones.

    Going back to your Twitter account, how do you do it? Do you rely on submissions, or do you spend your day googling around for weird IoT stuff?
    At first I spent probably far too much time googling weird IoT shit. Honestly, most of the best inspiration is found on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. There are so many ideas on there that should've died on the whiteboard but are somehow getting funded. These days I get sent a lot of great stuff I've missed though and it feels weird to be kinda the place people are looking for what's new in the world of terrible internet devices. I definitely read way more IoT news than I thought I would now. The weirdest one I saw today was a skipping rope that connects to your phone to tell you how many loops you did, or whatever. It just makes me wonder what was wrong with those ones that had a counter in the end.

    What's the most viral tweet you ever sent?
    There was one that got like 4K retweets. I think that was the one that got a lot of reporter attention and helped get the account around.

    I think it was interesting because it was a terrible Photoshop, but was a little bit of a horrible look at where it could go. Like, there's nothing stopping this being the future of IoT. Or your thermostat charging you to unlock temperatures or whatever. I at least want to trigger critical thinking about these devices.

    What's your goal? What do you hope to achieve with this account?
    At first it was just a way to vent my frustration with my stupid devices. But then as it kinda grew I realized it could have an actual influence and raise awareness of issues that do face the internet-connected devices in our future, kinda like how Swift on Security does by making it seem personable while still tweeting things that really matter. I think IoT en masse is inevitable, and will get better, but there are so many things we need to think about before we get there.

    What's the biggest thing we need to think about and figure out?
    I think I'm mostly concerned about privacy. As these IoT companies race to the bottom and hardware isn't as profitable they'll inevitably look to monetize further—perhaps it's by selling your data for advertising, as many others have in the past. I think a lot could be learnt about a person through the environment they're in. Maybe if I turn up the Nest too much Amazon could show me electric blankets, or if my house gets broken into I start getting emails about new smart locks. Then you've got the external actors, too, who break in, steal data and use it for their own gain—imagine ransomware, but installed on your oven and fridge. What would you do? Pay so you can wash your clothes? Or buy a new machine? Like, sure, these are all somewhat far-fetched concepts, but things that do happen today. Samsung's smart fridges already have exploits so I imagine it's only a matter of time.

    Do you have a hopeful last thought for IoT enthusiasts?
    I think the period we're in right now is the turbulent time before things get better. IoT is in its infancy and everyone's still figuring all the weird shit out. Once Apple, Google and others fight it out and we have a common platform, these things will probably work super well and be useful! But for now, buying in is a big risk: you might need to upgrade hardware to get into that future platform (cough, Homekit, cough), or you might bet on the wrong one. Right now, it's a waiting game.