Are agencies really ready for the Internet of Things?

From storage to security, the risks are significant — but ignoring the IoT is not an option.

Shutterstock image (by a-image): connected devices around the world.

(Image: a-image / Shutterstock)

It’s a hydra-headed opportunity and test — and it’s not something agencies can afford to ignore.

The much-hyped Internet of Things (IoT) is exponentially more risky, rewarding and challenging than yesterday’s tech arrangements. Increasingly connected, sensor-laden and data-driven systems are poised to change everything from national security to office-space management. But they generate more data and complexity than many agencies are comfortable managing, which means serious changes are on the horizon.

Cisco Systems predicts the IoT will generate $4.6 trillion for the public sector before 2025, in value added and costs saved. And although the General Services Administration has not yet come close to those sorts of returns, the agency — which manages nearly 10,000 government-owned buildings around the country — has pioneered IoT building management with its GSALink initiative.

Collecting 29 million data points per day from myriad sensors throughout its buildings, GSA is able to monitor everything from light use to humidity, enabling the agency to boost productivity and promote good health by optimizing conditions when workers are present and saving on energy costs when they’re not.

Other big adopters include the intelligence community and the Defense Department. Warfighters can benefit from sensors that improve their tactical awareness, while vitals monitors can help commanders know who’s healthy or injured.

“I do see the Defense Department out in front [of IoT],” said Gary Hall, chief technology officer for Federal Defense at Cisco.

Hall added that there is plenty of room for crossover. Municipal experiments with smart lighting or parking, for instance, could inform similar adoption on agency campuses or military bases. “I’ve been on a lot of military bases, and the parking situation could certainly be improved,” he quipped.

At its core, the IoT consists of Internet-connected objects — such as computers, thermostats or simple sensors that ping a single data point — and the networks to which they’re connected.

The term “Internet of Things” refers to the physical elements of a connected network — the “things” — while the term “Internet of Everything” is used to refer to the whole shebang: servers, sensors, data flows between them, people interpreting the data and even people talking to other people about the system.

And as with all seismic shifts, the people will wind up mattering just as much as the tech.

‘Humans can’t deal with the volume’

With massive scope comes management trouble. The IoT’s hurdles revolve around the problem of too much: too much data, too many new security holes to plug and too much guidance, not all of it useful.

Even simple storage becomes an issue. The number of connected “things” is expected to balloon from around 16 billion today to 50 billion by 2020, with skyrocketing data generation spurring a need for a 750 percent expansion in data center capacity.

Hall pointed to the problem of “big, large data” because both the overall volume and the size of individual files have exploded. That creates a need for pre-processing with machines rather than people.

“Humans can’t deal with the volume of data we’re producing,” Hall said.

The security risks are also enormous.

Each Internet-connected object could theoretically become a point of entry for hackers. At a conference in April, Martin Scott, general manager of Rambus’ Cryptography Research Division, cited IDC estimates that within two years, 90 percent of all IT networks will face an IoT-based security breach.

Ron Ross, a fellow in the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Computer Security Division, recently labeled the IoT practically indefensible.

“As we see continued innovations in information technology and that technology is increasingly connected through wireless networks in things like cell phones, cars and appliances, we get a simultaneous increase in complexity,” Ross told FCW. “That means an increase in the potential ‘attack surface’ that is now an inherent part of that IT infrastructure, giving adversaries more opportunities to penetrate and compromise our IT systems and cause problems.”

Several experts pointed to the 2013 Target breach as the “classic example” of that broad attack surface being exploited. Security credentials stolen from a heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractor hired to remotely monitor stores’ energy use gave hackers access to Target’s point-of-sale systems and credit card information.

Official instructions are of limited help. Ross said agencies are “drowning in guidance,” yet clear, actionable guidelines for IoT adoption are still scarce. To remedy the situation, NIST’s Cyber-Physical Systems Working Group is developing guidance to lead agencies through the process of creating resilient systems.

Securing networks, handling data

Quick stats

50 billion: Number of Internet-connected “things” that will be online by 2020

$4.6 trillion: IoT’s value for the public sector

70/30: Percent of IoT benefit that will be agency-specific vs. percent that will come from cross-agency adoption

x4: IoT’s force-multiplier effect

The consensus among IoT experts is that agencies cannot avoid the issue any longer, and those that have not started planning IoT implementations are behind the curve.

Awareness is crucial. It’s important to know what’s on your network and how it’s supposed to behave before any attack occurs, said Peter Romness, a business development manager at Cisco, at a recent GovLoop seminar.

“If a sensor that’s supposed to relay temperature and humidity starts to take information from your network, that’s a warning sign,” he said.

But he added that there is no “silver bullet” defense, so agencies must prepare to both prevent attacks and manage inevitable intrusions.

“It’s not a question of if you’re going to get hacked, it’s a matter of when,” he said. Even before the number of connected devices explodes, “you probably already have some malware in your network.”

Hall advocated protection at the data level and putting advanced encryption on devices. Adopting a coherent plan for normalizing data is also essential.

“When you’re dealing with different systems, different vendors, in different buildings, getting them to talk together was a challenge,” said GSA spokesman Matthew Burrell. ”As the blurry line between industrial systems and IT systems becomes more clear, we are finding that it is critically important to work with industry to homogenize the data so that one system’s data stream and reporting capability is the same as the next.”

Prepping employees for the change is also crucial, he added. “Don’t wait till the end to deal with the people.”

 Yet despite all the challenges, the IoT is a wealth of transformative potential.

“The biggest lesson has been that this is not just a technology tool, this is a technology ‘way of doing business,’” Burrell said. “It affects process, workflow, training and even vendor contracts.”

“This is the next big disruption,” Hall said. “It’s important that we aren’t so afraid of the fear of attack that we don’t realize the value.”

For agencies that haven’t yet embraced the IoT, he added, “it’s not something they can avoid.”

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