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Congress Wants to Probe the Internet of Things. Here’s What It Should Focus On

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Congress is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to technology. (“Series of tubes,” anyone?)

But now, a group of senators from a key Capitol Hill committee wants to plunge headlong into what some have hailed as the next frontier in computing -- the so-called Internet of Things, which describes the coming explosion in Internet-connected devices.

A bipartisan contingent of senators from the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote to the committee’s chairman, Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and ranking member, John Thune, R-S.D., requesting “a general oversight and information-gathering hearing” on the topic by the end of the year.

“The proliferation of connected products is sparking a number of important policy questions,” including consumer protection, security and privacy and how the government can leverage the technology, the Oct. 20 letter stated. “The number and the scope of these issues demands our prompt attention so we can better understand the technologies and explore how best to preserve America’s global leadership position in innovation and economic growth.

Lawmakers signing the letter included Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Cory Booker, D-N.J; Deb Fischer, R-Neb.; and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

Hype surrounding the Internet of Things, or the Internet of Everything as it’s sometimes called, has been building over the past few years, spurred in part by the rise of wearable computing -- Google Glass, smart watches and fitness-tracking devices -- market speculation and growing media interest.

Cisco anticipates at least 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020, and the International Data Corporation has estimated the global market could hit more than $7 trillion by decade’s end.

When Pew Research and Elon University examined the future of the Internet in a series of reports this year, most experts cited both the promise and potential pitfalls associated with the trend, said Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon and co-author of the Pew reports.

“Of large concern is that much of the Internet of Things is invisibly interwoven into people's lives and it favors convenience for governments and businesses serving individuals over the privacy (and sometimes the security) of individuals,” Anderson told Nextgov in an email.

Here’s how the Pew report put it:

“The realities of this data-drenched world raise substantial concerns about privacy and people’s abilities to control their own lives. If everyday activities are monitored and people are generating informational outputs, the level of profiling and targeting will grow and amplify social, economic and political struggles.”

For the government, specifically, which has struggled to safeguard regular networked devices, securing a growing ecosystem of unconventional objects will likely pose new hurdles.

“You're going to connect all of these wildly different devices with wildly different functionality with just really incredibly varying functions and software and capabilities,” said Michael Daniel, White House cybersecurity coordinator in a recent interview with Nextgov. “So, we've not only scaled up the problem; we've made it incredibly much more diverse.”

Despite Congress’ willingness to tackle this new challenge, its Luddite reputation looms large. Former presidential innovation fellow and tech reformer Clay Johnson famously said last year, watching Congress conduct oversight hearings of the HealthCare.gov website failures was like “people who can’t read doing literary criticism.”

So, how will Congress fare with the Internet of Things? Experts are taking a wait-and-see approach.

When queried by Nextgov, a chief information officer at a mid-size federal agency, who declined to be named, said: "I actually applaud them at least asking the question. I don't think they're proposing they're going to do any regulations or anything like that, yet. But the more Congress can at least begin to actually start learning and actually addressing this, the better."

(Image via frank_peters/Shutterstock.com)

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