In the K(NO)W: How identity can solve the dystopian future of the Internet of Things

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David Birch has seen our hellish, always-connected fate, and he has come to warn us. But he also sees potential solutions.

With a deadpan delivery and cynical take, Birch’s hourlong keynote at the K(NO)W Identity Conference in Washington D.C. took attendees deeper and deeper down the IoT rabbit hole, detailing the horrors of Bluetooth socks, Wi-Fi kettles, and connected underpants.

Those first two products are actually real (and Birch provided the photographic evidence to prove it), but the third is a red herring. Connected underpants grab your attention, he explained, in a way that connected lightbulbs cannot.

Connected underpants grab your attention in a way that connected lightbulbs cannot.

And grasping the gravity of the situation is important in driving the discussion forward, to solve real problems that will only continue to get worse in our always-connected world. Birch said he sees organizations like One World Identity and its K(NO)W Identity Conference as an opportunity to solve these issues in positive and meaningful ways, by encouraging industry coordination.

Though connected underpants make for a humorous hypothetical, they are not far from reality in the ever-growing Internet of Things — a world that encompasses everything from Fitbits for your pets to Fitbits for your private parts.

No, really. And sure enough, he had the photos to prove it.

“People are actually going out, selling this stuff right now,” Birch said.

While it can be a minor inconvenience when ubiquitous connectivity leads to your credit card being stolen, for example, the situation would become far more serious if a bad actor were to steal highly personal data, or even crash your car — incidents that are becoming more possible and probable with every new IoT device.

“It’s not just the devices — it’s the data for the devices that need to be secured as well,” he said.

In his view, too many in the industry have a casual solution to these issues, best summed up in two words he repeated throughout the keynote: “Because, blockchain.” While a distributed, secure ledger has some value, he believes companies need to think seriously about how they plan to implement blockchain in meaningful ways that will truly protect the privacy — and safety — of users in the Internet of Things.

While you might not care too much about your lightbulbs being hacked, thanks to new botnet attacks and weak security implementations, sometimes it’s actually your lightbulbs themselves that do the hacking on behalf of someone.

Citing new cryptographic techniques in the industry, Birch said he sees companies in a position to deliver privacy in a more meaningful and powerful way than ever before.

He gave the example of a person looking to review a hotel. Yelp, for example, doesn’t truly need to know your legal name, or any other personal information about you, other than the fact that you actually stayed at the hotel.

Blockchain is a technology that could actually deliver on that promise, ensuring the information received by the website is accurate and verifiable, while also protecting the identity of the user who wishes to review the hotel — or restaurant, or anything.

Other examples could include age verification. If a user wanted to visit an adult website, the site only really needs to know that they are over the age of 18 — any information beyond that, such as their name or their exact age — is irrelevant.

These examples show how identity and verification, and the technology behind them, could change the landscape of many industries. Because, in Birch’s view, what the world faces now with IoT is “a market failure issue.”

Fixing the issue will not only require industry coordination, but perhaps some humor and good storytelling too.

“I don’t want to tell you a story about lightbulbs,” Birch said. “I am telling you about underpants, because I want you to remember the conversation.”