The Industrial Internet of Things Promises Safety Wins but Security Risks

You know those signs you always see on construction sites, the ones that say “this workplace has gone 100 days without injury?” Those signs are about to get a major overhaul.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is coming, hot on the heels of its domestic cousin, and it’s bringing major changes to the workplace. The fourth industrial revolution will forever change the way we work. Not only will network-aware devices allow us to be more productive, they will also usher in a new era of safety and security practices made possible by interconnected devices.

The Rewards

If you’re familiar with wearable technologies like Google Glass, you might have already guessed that IIoT will use similar gadgetry to help supervisors better understand the condition of their workforce. The technology to measure vital signs, like heart rate and skin temperature, already exists. In a network-aware workplace, these data points will be monitored in real time. It’s been speculated that we will even be able to measure human fatigue as soon as 2016.

It won’t just be humans evaluating this data, either. If you’re a field worker performing a survey in scorching heat, for example, your network-aware orange safety vest might be programmed to alert the home office if your temperature exceeds a set threshold. Similarly, equipment on manufacturing lines will be just as informed of safety standards and practices as you are, and might automatically shut off in the event that you fail to follow procedure.

The Risks

Technology is a double-edged sword, though, and each wearable device and network-aware machine that’s added to the workplace represents a possible point of entry for cyber-attacks.

You might think it’s science fiction, but anonymous U.S. government officials have already shared information about weaponized malware called Stuxnet. The computer worm was allegedly used to invoke a series of incidents that destroyed multiple Iranian centrifuges, dealing a crippling blow to the nation’s nuclear program. Such a weapon could wreak havoc if let loose on IIoT devices, and it’s entirely possible the casualties could be human this time.

In 2015, half of all small businesses were the target of a cyberattack, and it seems that a different major corporation – Target, LinkedIn, Sony etc. – announces a data breach nearly every day now. Personal data is highly valuable on the dark web, which means IIoT devices will almost certainly be the target of cyberattacks. A robust network security solution will be critical for businesses that rely on large numbers of IIoT devices.

The Reality

Although the situation seems dire, there is hope that the war on cybercrime is reaching a turning point. In the past, victims were relegated to playing a defensive role, the best outcome you could hope for was to escape an attack unscathed. Now, however, the FBI and other international agencies are honing their skills and holding attackers accountable more frequently.

Much like the first three industrial revolutions, we won’t fully comprehend what the fourth means until it’s already upon us. You can bet that once new technologies arrive and are exploited, the pace of development will only increase. In the same way that conventional wars have inspired some of the world’s most profound advances in medicine, the war for the web is sure to deliver advances we can’t yet comprehend.

So remember, before you lace up your network-aware steel toes and head to work, make sure you’ve updated them to the latest firmware version. You don’t want to be responsible for setting the sign back to “0 days.”

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Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Nichols is a huge fan of all things nerdy, geeky and unusual. She is a writer with a love affair with the sciences, and has channeled that passion into writing, which you can read more about at her blog Schooled by Science.