Too smart to obey: What if IoT devices turn against humanity

Brace yourself as your smart devices decide to sabotage you.

A story about a botnet of three million malware-infected smart toothbrushes took the internet by storm last week. According to the Swiss newspaper Aargauer Zeitung, the remotely controlled toothbrushes participated in a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack to bring down the website of a company in Switzerland.

Toothbrushes attack! It sounds like an unbelievable scenario, and apparently is – many remained unconvinced that it is technically possible. However, it left us pondering what’s in store for the future as we put increasingly more trust in Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

The demand for IoTs is soaring. There are approximately 15.14 billion IoT devices out there, and by 2050, the numbers are set to hit 24 billion devices. The vast network of interconnected devices extends from households to the urban landscapes of cities and into the machinery of industrial manufacturing units.

The increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing another level of “smart” to smart devices. While AI equips machines with the potential capability to make autonomous decisions, IoT devices are essentially giving them 'hands' for the job. But what if that job leads them down a dark path?

The Doomsday

Picture waking up to your cat perched atop you, furiously meowing. You overslept because, for some unknown reason, your smartwatch failed to sound the alarm. Your feline companion is demanding breakfast because the IoT pet feeder refused to dispense her meal.

Chilled to the bone, you get out of bed – the smart air conditioning system cooled the place for no reason. You notice that your petunias are dead, as the plant watering system decided to dry them to death.

There is water everywhere on the bathroom floor because the washing machine has flooded the room due to uncontrolled water usage. Small home devices, such as a smart toothbrush or a vibrator, refuse to work. Opening the fridge reveals more casualties – your milk and meat got spoilt as the fridge decided to hike the temperature.

You open your laptop to find out that the footage of your private life captured by home security cameras has been leaked online. The smart lighting has gone dumb and just flickers uncontrollably, acting more like a rave party than a household. Your eardrums throb as Alexa abruptly blasts an annoying song at maximum volume.

You try to make some coffee, but the smart oven overheats and starts the fire. You dash outside, just to notice that your own house has locked you out, and you can’t get back in.

The situation on the street is no better than at home. No one seems to be able to get anywhere. Public transport is overcrowded, and buses are not coming on time. The public transport system that was synchronized with passenger demand has stopped working.

GPS is giving drivers the wrong directions, making them drive in circles. People can’t find where to park, as sensors informing about free parking places are malfunctioning and displaying random numbers. Smart street lights repeatedly shut off in response to motion, precisely when illumination is most needed.

Surveillance cameras identifying potential threats in public spaces are sending out speeding tickets and fines for smoking in prohibited places to every single citizen recorded in their database. IoT devices that monitor air and water quality in the city start showing malicious information, triggering false alarms.

Self-driving cars ignore traffic signals, which themselves have gone rogue and show mixed signals. Not surprisingly, you eventually get hit by the car and end up in the hospital, which is not spared from the chaos.

Wearables used for monitoring patients are showing wrong vital signs. AI-powered devices that normally assist medical staff start giving incorrect diagnoses.

You are getting surgery; however, the smart scalpels with built-in sensors and other devices mislead surgeons with false information about the internal conditions of your body. IoT-enabled medication dispensing systems begin administering overdose medications and dispensing incorrect drugs, putting your life at threat.

The city’s industrial area also bursts into chaos. Rogue IoT-driven machinery releases toxic chemicals into the environment and increases production speeds, or temperatures, leading to breakdowns in assembly lines.

So what have we got? Essential services and supply chains are disrupted, companies going out of business, and unemployment skyrocketing. Widespread panic and uncertainty lead to social unrest, civil disturbances, and complete economic and social collapse. What a day to be alive.

Machines vs humanity, or is it just us?

Doomsday scenarios like that are thought-provoking. With the rise of AI, existential concerns have risen as well. Over a thousand well-known people have already signed an open letter warning that AI could one day destroy humanity.

Robots taking over the Earth and other sci-fi scenarios are very appealing to our imagination. Luckily, so far, AI does not have enough autonomy to go rogue. That might not be the case in the long run, though.

The main threat to the ecosystem of IoT devices is not the super-intelligent psycho-computer but the fellow human being. Putting too much trust in IoT devices is dangerous, as cybercriminals might be preying on them. Each new smart device creates a new vulnerability and provides a fresh attack vector for attackers.

“We’ll see AI at the hardware level in almost everything – entertainment devices, lights, electrical systems, wearables, mobile devices, cars in the next 15 to 20 years,” Nikolas Badminton, a futurist speaker, told Cybernews.

“IoT sensors will sense the environment, networks will transfer data, and AI will act as the figurative brain – supercharged and ready to find hidden patterns that reveal new opportunities for innovation, connection, and commercialization,” he adds.

When asked whether he imagined potential scenarios where IoT devices could turn against humanity, he was critical. “Humans turn against humans. Devices and sensors do not have autonomy. Devices will not go rogue. People exploiting them will,” said Badminton.

Hacking homes and infrastructure

Star Kashman, a legal expert in cyber law, told Cybernews that she sees countless potential dangers of relying too much on IoT devices. “IoT devices make things in the short term seem "easier" and more accessible. However, as for right now, they are not very safe,” said Kashman.

You don’t need to look far for examples. In 2019, hackers breached a Ring camera used for child monitoring. The hacker told the child that he was “Santa.” In 2020, hackers successfully manipulated Tesla cars into speeding up by 50 miles per hour. The car’s camera system was fooled by subtly altering a speed limit sign on the side of a road, showing that autonomous driving systems can potentially be wrecked. Iranian-linked hackers attacked the control system of Bowman Avenue Dam in New York in 2013.

Last year, Cybernews research showed that amidst Israel’s war on Palestine, hacktivists targeted industrial control systems in Israel to disrupt their functionality.

“Each day, hackers become more skilled, and the US seems to be falling behind. Much of our infrastructure is connected to the Internet of Things. If hackers are able to access more of our infrastructure similar to how a hacker accessed the Bowman Avenue Dam, we could be in a ton of danger,” says Kashman.

Doomsday of privacy

Another dimension of the dangers posed by IoT devices is privacy. Smart gadgets gather tons of private data that is stored and processed by big tech companies. While the legislation is still vague, this data could and probably will be used for commercial purposes.

“One other concern is the ability of these devices to collect data and apply that in new, commercial ways. We could expect an uprising against this and maybe an uprising and choice for people to live a less connected life,” says Badminton.

As internet connectivity becomes more pervasive and integral to daily human life, a potential consequence is the risk of developing what Badminton referred to as "connectivity apathy."

“With individuals being able to hack into ring doorbells, or even Amazon’s Alexa, imagine how many intimate private conversations and even video feeds a hacker can find. They are now able to peer into users' homes and private lives,” concludes Kashman.