The Next Big Thing

M2M - machine to machine communication - is being called the Next Big Thing, the latest revolution in technological communications. They enable wired or wireless devices to talk to each other without a human around, doing everything from monitoring milk production in dairy cows to controlling cars on busy freeways. But are they vulnerable to hackers?

M2M is already here, and has been for a while, according to a report released last week by the Seoul-based Samsung Economic Research Institute, which is available only to subscribers. But the speed at which it is increasing is breathtaking. At the moment, the number of devices connected to the Internet is believed to be about 1 billion. However, that is expected to soar to 100 billion eventually and more as the technology, in which remote sensors detect information and send it wirelessly to other machines, which use the information to make things happen.

For instance, it is in use in traffic control, customer billing, telemedicine, and hundreds, if not thousands of other uses. In the Netherlands, Sparked, a Dutch startup, M2M monitors the health of dairy cattle, collecting data such as feed intake and behavioral patterns from sensors attached to each animal. Sparked analyzes the data to let dairy farmers know about their animals' health status, pregnancy and delivery, with the aim of delivering increased milk production and requiring fewer farmhands.

Smartphones are expected to serve as the main platform for M2M, particularly as wearable healthcare aids became widely available. Data will stream from personal terminals to smartphones, which will then serve as personal hubs offering a multitude of service applications.

M2M is expected to grow into consumer areas such as healthcare and safety, such as a healthcare assistance service launched by NJTT Resonant of Japan that already tracks weight and blood pressure to prevent and control obesity and diabetes. The current 500,000 subscribers transmit data from scales and blood pressure gauges automatically via Bluetooth-enabled smartphones. Wearable heart monitors are expected to be launched in the near future.

The Yankee Group, a London- and Boston-based consulting group, projects that cellular M2M connections will increase globally from 81.8 million in 2011 to almost 217.5 million in 2015, with connectivity revenue soaring from US$3.1 billion to US$6.7 billion over the four year period, making it one of the biggest growth areas in the wireless sector. The variety of uses is stunning. According to the SERI report, SS Pharmaceuticals, a Japanese drug maker, has developed an app that measures the dent in the pillow to analyze the quality of sleep with an accelerometer within smartphones.

The dramatic fall in prices of sensors has meant that the number of micro-electromechanical system sensors embedded in mobile devices went from just 10 million in 2007 to 3.5 billion in five years as chips have become cheaper and smaller. The speed of mobile internet has accelerated by 1,000 times since 2000, according to the report, written by SERI researcher LIM Tae-Yun. As a result, M2M use is expanding from just monitoring systems to everything from cars to volume-rate garbage disposal in Korea.

But what about security concerns? As systems proliferate and machines talk only to machines, does that give the hackers an open opportunity to do their damage with no humans watching? So far, security experts say, the hacker community has largely left the systems alone. But when driverless traffic is flowing across Beijing or Shanghai at a steady 100 kmh, what happens if the system gets attacked by the average Chechen hacker out to cause chaos? Or, for instance, a hacker could attack the transponder system used for automated tolls such as those on the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridges and dozens of others and either give that day's ration of drivers a free crossing.

The growing dependency on M2M thus affords the potential for the bloody-minded to disrupt infrastructure, particularly as public utilities use them to measure energy use by individual homes, for instance, replacing the old meter reader who once walked from door to door.

"Security is a neglected issue in M2M communications," according to a study by NCP Engineering. "Hackers have options to attack these systems - weaknesses in applications, processors andRAM chips of control systems and sensors. Network connections that communicate with M2M management platforms are especially prone to attacks, mainly because the systems mainly communicate via WiFi networks and 2G or 3G connections."

SERI, in its report, said that "cyber terrorism, in particular, must be handled at the national security level as it has the potential to rock the very foundations of a national economy. Research and development into basic technologies, including sensor and wireless communication should be strengthened and software competitiveness upgraded in such areas as big data and cloud computing."