Schuetze: The Internet of Things

Dartmouth should alter internet network policies that prevent best practices.

by Brendan Schuetze | 10/12/17 12:30am

Originally coined by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Kevin Ashton in the late 1990s, the term “Internet of things” refers to the networking of small physical devices such as sensors, cameras and microphones through the internet. Enabled by recent advances in artificial intelligence and low-power microprocessors, technology giants such as Amazon and Google have brought affordable smart speakers — Alexa and Home respectively — to consumers. In addition, many companies are now producing smart lightbulbs and thermostats which can be operated through a smartphone app or devices such as smart speakers. The possibilities offered by these devices cannot be understated. IoT devices offer an economical means of collecting data, streaming music and making homes more energy efficient.

As the number of devices in the Internet of Things grows, so too will the scholarship. At Dartmouth, the potential benefits and risks of the IoT have been recognized for quite some time. During the summer term of 2015, computer science professor Sean Smith taught a class called the “Risks of the Internet of Things to Society.” Over winterim in 2016, the Thayer School of Engineering offered a short course focused on the IoT which allowed participants to gain experience programming credit card-sized computers. Beyond engineering and computer science, Tuck School of Business’s Center for Digital Society has also produced several executive briefings and lectures concerning the future of the IoT.

Despite the growing prominence of these devices, Dartmouth’s network infrastructure is unduly antagonistic to the Internet of Things. Because most IoT devices are used for rather low-priority purposes, they generally do not require the high-speed connection and level of security provided by encrypted Wi-Fi networks and therefore do not support the advanced security protocols required by Dartmouth Secure or eduroam. In an ideal world, IoT devices could use the Dartmouth Public network, but this is currently impossible because Dartmouth Public requires users to accept terms and conditions each time they rejoin the network and most IoT devices do not have screens or input devices that would allow users to do so. As a result, many IoT devices cannot connect to any network at Dartmouth.

Under the current network regime, the easiest way to connect IoT devices is through a privately-owned router. However operating additional routers throughout campus is not ideal for several reasons. For one, adding routers to campus will cause network interference. In addition, because the router will be registered to student’s NetID, one person will have to accept responsibility for any network traffic that flows through the router associated with their student account.

While only the College has access to the true statistics concerning the adoption of the IoT on our campus, personal experience leads me to believe that this phenomenon is not uncommon. In my Greek house, we are currently operating several additional Wi-Fi routers. These routers enable us to connect smart speakers, programmable lightbulbs and other devices that would otherwise be unable to access the internet. In my house, the number of alternative Wi-Fi routers is predicted to grow as we are currently investigating the possibility of adding a smart thermostat, which would help increase the energy efficiency of our 76-year-old physical plant. Currently, the heating system of our house can only access the temperature of the first floor, but with the addition of IoT sensors, we would be able to heat our house more effectively by gathering temperature data from all floors. I own a small computer called the “Raspberry Pi,” which acts as a Wi-Fi router for my room. This enables me to stream internet to my Amazon Alexa and my Xbox One media center. In addition, the always-on nature of my Raspberry Pi automates several tasks associated with my senior thesis psychology experiments.

Fortunately, there is a simple fix to Dartmouth Public’s hostility to IoT devices — Dartmouth could offer a way to register IoT devices by their unique media access control address identifiers. Once registered, the IoT devices would be able to bypass the Dartmouth Public authentication popup. There is precedent for registering devices by MAC address, as Dartmouth’s information technology department already offers a similar mechanism to register Ethernet devices.

Historically, Dartmouth has led American universities as an innovator, first with BlitzMail and later with campus-wide Wi-Fi networks. It is now time for Dartmouth to lead higher education into the age of the Internet of Things.

Schuetze is a member of the Class of 2018. 

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