For a long time I’ve been interested what the future holds in terms of how we will interact with each other and our environments. Back in the day, these areas used to be called ubiquitous computing and home automation but have since been subsumed by the (only slightly) catchier moniker of Internet of Things (IoT).
A couple of my ideas involved controlling devices at home via SMS messages (this was way before smart phones and ‘apps’ came along). For example, being able to set my VCR to record a show while I’m out* or pre-heat the oven when I’m heading home with a frozen pizza†. Of course, if I were to implement these now I’d take a completely different approach. With all the advances we’ve made, the Internet of Things has huge potential to change our lives the way the Internet itself did.
However, if we take the last decade of the Internet and Web as an example of how the IoT may play out it’s actually not a pretty picture. We’re in the age of the Internet behemoths, with huge centralised data silos containing lots of our personal data. We trust such services to secure our data but repeated breaches undermine that trust. Sure, there is some choice among providers but it’s fast becoming a case of “choose your dictator”. Our information is trapped, interoperating is becoming difficult and to top it off, these giants are busy fighting legal battles with each other instead of out-competing. Users just get caught in the cross-fire.
If we extrapolate this to the Internet of Things then, ultimately, it’ll become a winner-take-all-my-data arrangement, with lock-ins to restrict me from migrating. Remember, we’re talking about connecting more devices to the Internet and giving almost ubiquitous access to our daily lives and habits. Trading more of our personal lives, from within our homes, with increasingly faceless companies and for not very much in return, isn’t particularly appealing.
If the IoT plays out this way, then we will effectively increase the Privacy Tax that we’ve already had to pay for our social networking tools. In order to benefit from the world of connected devices, we have to adjust (again) the notion of ownership. I want this to be the Internet of my Things, so how do we make that happen?
To really achieve that, we need to have software infrastructure that incorporates Privacy by Design, so that an individual can regain the ability to control their data and decide for themselves whom to share it with. These infrastructure tools must also work in a distributed fashion, so there’s no requirement to ally yourself to any particular centralised service. Of course, the tools themselves also have to be open-source, so that developers can be reassured that the ground they’re building their products on won’t be taken away from them.
In the last year and a half, I’ve been exploring these ideas at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory. A lot of cutting edge work is being done on the problems of Identity and connectivity as well as the operating systems for the future. Infrastructure and tools are being shaped that together form a new toolstack to make the creation and management of decentralised networks easier‡. There’s a larger picture emerging from this work and it’s time to start talking more about it and describing the pieces. We’re calling this open-source toolstack Nymote and there’s a new site where you can read more about it and keep up with news and releases. The introductory post there describes more about the background and what we’re working on.
I’ll be writing about this work both here and on the Nymote Blog and I’d love to hear from others who are interested in this area – please do get in touch with me or leave a comment. If you’d like to sign up for updates by email, you can join the Nymote list here.
* Sky+ came out with this feature a few months after I started discussing it with people.
† Yes, people told me this was insane and I'd burn my house down. Luckily for my housemates, I never actually got around to implementing anything.
‡ This is somewhat ironic as decentralisation was one of the founding tenets of the Internet. We're just helping people get back to that.