Mobility

The dangers of smart devices and bugs

When a smart device suffers a bug, the consequences can be disastrous. Jack Wallen discusses just how crucial it is for developers to fully vet their updates.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Back in December, 2015, a bug hit the Nest smart thermostat that wound up draining the battery and forcing the device off line. I know this, because it struck my Nest. I had to constantly bring the device back on line (which was as simple as dialing the temperature fully counterclockwise, then fully clockwise, and finally back to the setting I wanted)...or suffer the dropping temperatures (fortunately last December saw record warm temps, so it wasn't nearly as cataclysmic as it could have been). Eventually the Nest updated and the bug was patched. Shortly after that incident, I discovered a bug in my Roku device that managed to take it off line when the device went into sleep mode. The only way to bring it back on line was to restart the device. This opened my eyes to something that I hadn't before considered.

Bugs, flaws, security holes...their impact becomes exponentially more profound, the "smarter" the device. Consider the smart thermostat. Say you vacation in the winter. You leave, assuming the comfort and care of your home or business is under the watchful care of your smart thermostat. You leave for a week or two, only to find said thermostat updated with a software glitch that shut down your heating system. You come home to frozen (or broken) pipes and any number of other casualties of cold.

It could easily get worse. Bugs in auto smart systems, home security devices, smart appliances (such as stoves), smart lighting systems, smart televisions, smart toasters...anyone could easily conjure up a disastrous narrative based on any of these devices suffering from bugs.

Responsibility

Yes, this is the price we pay for technological advancements (And most of us are very much willing to pay said price). But what this does is place a very weighty onus on the developers of smart device software. Unlike releasing an a game update for a smartphone, releasing updates for smart technology means an even more rigorous testing cycle. The resultant errors of poor testing? Lives could be lost. That's right, we're not talking about data overages (which are bad enough) or the inevitable factory reset.

Let's take this to an extreme situation. Your home or business is controlled by a smart hub that connects:

  • Smart thermostat
  • Smart security devices
  • Smart appliances
  • Smart lighting

An update is pushed to your hub which takes everything offline and locks you out of the building. It's winter and your pipes freeze. All lights in the building are off and the alarms are no longer armed.

I think you see where that leads.

A dystopian future

We can even expand this idea into the future. What happens when whole cities integrate smart technology, such that whole city blocks are dependent upon the stability and security of software updates? Or the stock market crumbles? You've seen the movies...an update for that which controls the city goes rogue and chaos ensues. A single line of code brings about a dystopian future (my author wheels are spinning now)

Thing is, smart devices must receive updates...and those updates must be of a pushed nature. Consumers cannot be responsible for updating the firmware in their cars as they are in their smartphones or desktops. Why? Although the average citizen can manually check for (and okay) an update on a smartphone or desktop computer, with smart systems (such as found in modern automobiles), it's not that simple. So when these updates are pushed into their targeted systems, it is imperative that those updates do not cripple the devices.

This is why developers must allow extra time for beta cycles of their software. Yes, it means longer waits for updates that might bring new features...but that extended wait could mean the difference between your smart home functioning and not. User controls must be incredibly well designed. Security must be key. With each passing year, our lives become more and more dependent upon The Internet of Things. Smart devices have become so entrenched in our lives that going back is hardly an option. The more we depend upon smart technology, the more important it is that those devices never suffer bugs, glitches, flaws, security holes...all the things that have been part of the desktop landscape for years.

And what of smart devices being employed by hospitals? In August of 2015, it was reported that a bug in the firmware of an IV fluid pump allowed for hijacking, which could put patients lives at risk. TrapX Security released a white paper that purported the majority of American healthcare organizations are vulnerable to device hijacking. Do you want to be admitted into the care of a modern hospital when Medjacking is an actual thing?

There is no gray area here. When a company pushes an update to a smart device, that update must be failproof. I know, I know...that's far more challenging than it sounds. But this isn't a desktop, where data can be recovered due to a failed update. This is a situation where lives and property could be at stake. Updates must work. Developers have to take the extra time to fully test their code before pushing it to devices, else suffer the possible financial loss of class action law suits. Period. End. Of. Story.

Have you been burned by a smart device update? If so, what was it and how did you resolve the problem?

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About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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