GAO Sees ‘Significant Challenges’ Arising from IoT Adoption

May 15, 2017–“Significant challenges” likely to be presented by “the wide adoption” of Internet of things (IoT) technologies include vulnerability to hacking, the need for security and privacy measures to prevent IoT misuse, and economic disruption “to certain businesses and job categories,” the Government Accountability Office said in a technology assessment report published today.

The report explains IoT technology; looks at its uses and benefits in various sectors, including wearables, smart homes, vehicles, manufacturing, health care, agriculture, and energy; and considers implications for information security, privacy, safety, governmental oversight, standards development, economic ramifications, and managing IoT’s use of electromagnetic spectrum.

GAO reviewed “key reports and scientific literature describing current and developing IoT technologies and their uses” and “interviewed agency officials from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), researchers, and other industry experts. We participated in conferences on the latest uses and implications of the IoT to discuss and gather data and viewpoints from various perspectives. In addition, we collaborated with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to convene two meetings of experts, one focused on IoT technologies and the other focused on the implications of those technologies.”

Regarding spectrum, the report says, “Experts we spoke with agreed that there will be an enormous need for spectrum capacity as IoT device usage grows. They identified two major spectrum-related challenges and knowledge gaps associated with the IoT: (1) managing interference and (2) developing spectrum management strategies. Additional IoT spectrum challenges and gaps include addressing inaccessible devices and the deployment of the next-generation wireless network, called 5G.”

It adds, “FCC staff stated that interference management is becoming more challenging given the rapid expansion in wireless services and devices. Unexpected sources of interference may pose a challenge to IoT devices. For example, microwave ovens leak waves that can interfere with Wi-Fi access points. Further, experts in spectrum research told us that for certain large-scale IoT deployments—such as in smart cities, connected cars, or applications where large amounts of video data are being transferred—spectrum needs can be a major issue. Finally, an expert in our meeting mentioned that having overly restrictive rules to manage interference may suppress customization of spectrum-using devices when companies ‘lock-down’ their devices to accommodate such rules.”

It also raises the possibility that deployed IoT devices won’t be able to adapt to changing spectrum allocation rules.  “Over the long-term, as spectrum needs and communication technologies evolve, IoT devices may have antiquated spectrum and communications requirements. One expert from our meeting spoke about an IoT device embedded in infrastructure and designed for 20 years of operations being inaccessible for updates or modifications. Since the IoT device was developed using spectrum rules at a given time, it may become obsolete if the spectrum rules change after being embedded, making communication to the device impossible using established methods. FCC staff we spoke to suggested and encouraged the use of unlicensed spectrum to avoid obsolescence. They told us that if a company were to use licensed spectrum for such purposes, the company would risk that conditions may change and the requirement for using licensed spectrum may become obsolete or irrelevant. Use of unlicensed spectrum may also confer other advantages such as lowered costs for manufacturers and consumers, according to an OECD report on the IoT. However, unlicensed spectrum may merit monitoring for interference resulting from increased demand for such spectrum from IoT applications.”

GAO did not make any recommendations in the report. —Lynn Stanton,