The vision of the so-called internet of things — giving all sorts of physical things a digital makeover — has been years ahead of reality.
But that gap is closing fast. Today, the range of things being computerized and connected to networks is stunning, from watches, appliances and clothing to cars, jet engines and factory equipment. Even roadways and farm fields are being upgraded with digital sensors. In the last two years, the number of internet-of-things devices in the world has surged nearly 70 percent to 6.4 billion, according to Gartner, a research firm.
By 2020, the firm forecasts, the internet-of-things population will reach 20.8 billion. The optimistic outlook is that the internet of things will be an enabling technology that will help make the people and physical systems of the world — health care, food production, transportation, energy consumption — smarter and more efficient.
The pessimistic outlook? Hackers will have something else to hack. And consumers accustomed to adding security tools to their computers and phones should expect to adopt similar precautions with internet-connected home appliances. “If we want to put networked technologies into more and more things, we also have to find a way to make them safer,” said Michael Walker, a program manager and computer security expert at the Pentagon’s advanced research arm.
“It’s a challenge for civilization.” To help address that challenge, Mr. Walker and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, created a contest with millions of dollars in prize money, called the Cyber Grand Challenge. To win, contestants would have to create automated digital defense systems that could identify and fix software vulnerabilities on their own — essentially smart software robots as sentinels for digital security.
A reminder of the need for stepped-up security came a few weeks after the Darpa-sponsored competition, which was held in August. Researchers for Level 3 Communications, a telecommunications company, said they had detected several strains of malware that launched attacks on websites from compromised internet-of-things devices. T
he Level 3 researchers, working with Flashpoint, an internet risk-management firm, found that as many as one million devices, mainly security cameras and video recorders, had been harnessed for so-called botnet attacks. They called it “a drastic shift” toward using internet-of-things devices as hosts for attacks instead of traditional hosts, such as hijacked data center computers and computer routers in homes.
And last week, researchers at Akamai Technologies, a web content delivery company, reported another security breach. They detected hackers commandeering as many as two million devices, including Wi-Fi hot spots and satellite antennas, to test whether stolen user names and passwords could be deployed to gain access to websites.
The Cyber Grand Challenge was announced in 2013, and qualifying rounds began in 2014. At the outset, more than 100 teams were in the contest. Through a series of elimination rounds, the competitors were winnowed to seven teams that participated in the finals in August in Las Vegas. The three winning teams collected a total of $3.75 million in prize money. With the computer security contest, Darpa took a page from a playbook that worked in the past. The agency staged a similar contest that served to jump-start the development of self-driving cars in 2005.