The Internet of What – Politico
President Barack Obama wears a FitBit monitor on his wrist to count his steps and calories, and has waxed poetic about the power of wearable technology to “give each of us information that allows us to stay healthier.”
On Capitol Hill, 13 members have joined together across party lines this year to launch the Internet of Things Caucus. Started by a former Microsoft marketing executive and a Republican who made his fortune in electronics, the caucus pledges to help foster the coming explosion of “products, services and interconnected opportunities that didn’t exist a generation ago and will be taken for granted by the end of this generation.”
Then again, the caucus hasn’t even held its first meeting yet. Obama’s own government panel has warned of a “small — and rapidly closing — window” for the U.S. government to successfully figure out how to deal with the tech explosion everyone is so excited about.
The number of web-linked gadgets surpassed the number of humans on the planet seven years ago, and today the Internet of Things, the profusion of networked objects and sensors that increasingly touch our lives, is quickly turning our physical world into something totally new. As American consumers start filling their homes and businesses with networked technology — smart watches sending health data wirelessly, cars that can take over for their human drivers, and drones tracking wildfires and cattle — POLITICO set out to determine how well government was keeping up. Beyond one fledgling caucus, how is Washington grappling with this sweeping new force?
The short answer: It’s not.
This first-of-its-kind investigation involved reviewing hundreds of pages of
federal reports and hearing transcripts, attending many of the
inside-the-Beltway events now proliferating on the Internet of Things and
conducting interviews with more than 50 senators and members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers,
federal, state and local agency officials, privacy advocates and tech whizzes
all feeling their way into this new frontier. I also wired myself up to see just what it felt like to move through this new world as an early adopter.
What I found, overall, is that the government doesn’t have any single mechanism
to address the Internet of Things or the challenges it’s presenting. Instead, the new networked-object technologies are covered by at least two dozen separate federal
agencies — from the Food and Drug Administration to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from aviation to agriculture — and more than 30 different congressional committees. Congress has written no laws or any kind of
overarching national strategy specifically for the Internet of Things.
The Federal Trade Commission has
emerged as the government’s de facto police force for dubious business
practices related to the Internet of Things. But it faces
serious questions about its mandate, given the lack of underlying laws,
standards and policies that apply. And numerous other offices have grabbed onto their own piece of the elephant, often without treating it as the same animal. For instance, NHTSA and the Federal Aviation Administration are both grappling with controversial Internet of Things-related rules,
on driverless cars and drones, respectively, though their work isn’t closely coordinated.
One of the few government documents specifically to address the IOT was a
report by a White House-chartered task force published last November. After examining the cybersecurity implications of new networked technology for national security and emergency preparedness, the group warned that the
U.S. had until the end of the decade to really influence whether it becomes a
success or a catastrophic failure. “If the country fails to do
so, it will be coping with the consequences for generations,” the report by the President’s
National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee concluded.
So far, we seem to be letting the window close. While the tech companies behind
the IOT are working hard to make their case in Washington, the budding
controversies and challenges the industry faces has barely shown up as a coherent
problem on the government’s radar. That day may be coming. “If you think you’ve got a cybersecurity problem now, wait for the cold winter
day when a hacker halfway around the world turns down the thermostat on 100,000
homes in Washington D.C.,” said Marc Rotenberg, the head of the Electronic
Privacy Information Center.
Stung by years of Republican criticism that his administration is too quick to
regulate, Obama’s Cabinet has gone out of its way to show how friendly it is to
the innovation potential of the Internet of Things without talking much about
its consumer and public-sector risks. Congress has been friendly, too, which is not the same thing as informed.
“There’s 435 members of the House, 100 members of
the Senate, and most of them still don’t know what the Internet of Things is,”
said Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who co-chairs the recently
created Internet of Things Caucus, and counts himself an industry evangelist.
Where government involvement is concerned, many of the most plugged-in legislators belong in the “wait-and-see” camp. “I don’t
think we should wait 15 years until this thing is fully operational before we
start making public policy,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat who has
taken a leading role on the issue. “But I think we could wait 15 months.”
But the Internet of Things isn’t waiting. Every second, as tech CTO Dave Evans calculates elsewhere in this special report, 127 items are added to the Internet. Toasters and heart monitors; trucking fleets and individual cows. The world we inhabit is becoming a digital landscape, one that tracks and responds to each of us. Is anyone in Washington paying attention?
IN MAY 1869, on a promontory in northwest Utah, America
changed forever. That’s when railroad tycoons and their workers drove in
the ceremonial “Golden Spike” that
completed the first transcontinental railroad and knit the East Coast to the
expanding West. The railroad was a phenomenal driver of economic growth and
created fortunes — but its unprecedented power also created monopolies and
complaints of corruption and unfairness. Two decades later, it led Congress to create the first
U.S. regulatory agency: the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Other big moments in American innovation history have followed similar
patterns. Washington has tended to play
the role of cheerleader-in-chief — standing aside as new markets grew, and watching the consequences of each new
technology lead to messy patchworks of local and state rules, before finally
deciding they required federal attention as a coherent national issue.
“Congress is often a little behind the curve,” said Donald Ritchie, the
recently retired Senate historian. “They have to perceive there’s a problem.
And the advocates and lobbyists have to tell them there’s a problem before they
actually do something about it.”
Before the Food and Drug Administration’s creation in 1906, for instance, Americans had endured decades
of food scandals and a rising market in unregulated (and
useless) medicines. Henry Ford started pumping out Model Ts at the start of the
20th century, and
Americans got a national highway system by the mid-1950s. But Congress took
another decade before imposing safety and environmental regulations on the
“It takes a long time for the civic
community and the government to catch up with the risks,” said Ralph Nader, the
consumer advocate whose 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed” had a major role in forcing
lawmakers to impose new safety rules on the auto industry.
travel followed its own convoluted early path. It was a decade after the
Wright Brothers’ invention that Congress established a research-and-development
program for aeronautics, and another decade before the Commerce Department got
its first crack at setting federal safety standards on the new industry. The Civil
Aeronautics Authority arrived in 1938 to regulate
airline fares and determine carrier routes. But not until the 1950s did President
Dwight D. Eisenhower sign the law that established the precursor to the modern
As for the Internet itself, the technology was almost an accidental byproduct of government
research efforts that date back decades to the Defense Department. As it took off, and came into more people’s homes, lawmakers in
the 1990s did propose bills aimed at protecting Americans’ privacy and safety
from this new wave of information. Most were rebuffed. And while President Bill
Clinton near the end of his first term signed the Communications Decency
Act — mocked at the time as the “Great Cyberporn Panic
of 1995″ — the Supreme Court in 1997 issued its first ruling on
Internet regulations by applying First Amendment protections to X-rated materials.
“The view of the Hill on the Internet was it was new, it was radical, it was
explosive and the almost immediate reaction back then was to regulate
it,” said Daniel Caprio, a former chief privacy officer and deputy
assistant secretary for technology policy in President George W. Bush’s
Commerce Department. “Thankfully, that’s not what we did.”
While Americans died without rules for food, flight and cars, the
Internet overall has clearly benefited from government non-interference. So which category
does the Internet of Things fall into? Given its potential to reach deep into
citizens’ daily lives — tracking their heat use, their food shopping, even their
tooth brushing — many experts struggle to pinpoint exactly where it should fall
on the regulatory spectrum. In one sense, it’s just a tech market, a network of
chips and sensors and wireless standards. But in another, it’s something that touches American
citizens much more directly and personally than the Internet itself ever has.
“This is the weirdest damn thing we have in the world in terms of governance at
the moment, so it’s no wonder Congress can’t figure out how to get its arms around
it,” said Christopher Hill, a professor emeritus at George Mason
University and expert on the nexus of policy and technological history. “It’s not Comcast,
Time Warner, AT&T or Sprint. It’s not Cisco. And it’s not Amazon. And
it’s not Dell. Who the heck is it? That’s one of the problems we have. The
‘it’ in question is extremely diffuse.”
A RECENT BUSTLING Thursday morning
in the Capitol offered a pretty clear picture of just how the government
is dealing with this amorphous new challenge — or isn’t.
In the Rayburn House Office Building, the Energy and Commerce Committee
was putting the finishing touches on a sweeping health care bill that
would create a roadmap for the exchange of electronic health records, provide stronger
backing for telehealth programs, and more clearly define the Food and Drug
Administration’s role in regulating wearable monitors and health apps.
Across the hall, the Financial Services Committee collected testimony on cybersecurity threats that the banking
industry faces in protecting consumer data on electronic payments. Former
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, now a major industry lobbyist, told lawmakers how
hackers represent an “existential threat to our economy” and called for federal
standards notifying consumers of data breaches, pointing out the industry faced a confusing mix of almost 50 different state standards.
Congressional members flowed in and out of the hearing room to chat with
lobbyists and staffers in the marble hallway.
When I stopped Rep. Sean Duffy to ask about some of the privacy
and security issues central to the IOT, the Wisconsin Republican and former MTV
”Real World” star — who fashions himself as tech savvy and who is known to take
selfies with anyone — looked up quizzically: “The Internet of Things? What the
hell is that?”
One floor up, the American Constitution Society hosted a luncheon panel discussion on the regulatory challenges
facing Airbnb, Uber
and other companies representing the so-called sharing economy. With GPS location systems and fares
that fluctuate based on market demands, Uber has found itself pushing hard to change government regulations built around the rival taxi industry; like many Internet of Things technologies, it also blows up traditional assumptions about
who benefits from new technologies and who needs protections. “No one ever
thought that Uber would be like a black man’s dream, right?” said Christina
Weaver, director at the Raben Group, a liberal consulting firm, explaining how Uber can eliminate the problem African- American men face hailing a taxi in person.
Across the Capitol, Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation
Administration, got an unusually warm embrace in the afternoon from a group of
lawmaker who normally would not roll out the red carpet for him: Senate and
House Republicans. The reason: He was unveiling a government-industry-academic partnership on
unmanned aerial vehicles headquartered at Mississippi State University. The new
research institution, he said, would help demonstrate how the Internet of
Things applies to farmers, oil workers and many more people to help them safely
and efficiently do their jobs. While this partnership looked an awful lot like
a modern-day version of pork in an earmark-free world, the Republicans didn’t
seem to mind.
“I want to add my congratulations to the administrator,” said Rep.
Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota whose home-state academics would
contribute to the drone research effort. “You know, sometimes we
Republicans don’t get that many opportunities to congratulate the
administration on good decisions. But you made a good one here.”
Unmentioned was perhaps a more consequential effort Huerta is leading, work on a new rule that would set
weight, height, time and location restrictions on Americans’ use of
drones. The future of this multibillion-dollar industry will hinge on how
restrictive his policies are. And it wasn’t hard to appreciate why: About
10 minutes later, the televisions all across the Capitol running nonstop cable
switched into “BREAKING NEWS” mode: The Secret
Service had just arrested a man for flying a drone in Lafayette Square — a park right
across the street from the White House.
ALL OF THESE new Internet of Things
technologies won’t just automate everyday activities. They are also creating
vast amounts of data that users won’t necessarily know are being collected on
them. Can the government do anything about it? Should it?
data is stringently policed by the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act, and the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act required financial
institutions to give consumers a privacy notice spelling out what information
is collected on them, where and how it’s being shared and also how the data
Obama has been trying for several years
to expand consumers’ online privacy rights, but so far, he’s had little luck
making progress. In a 2014 White House report on “Big Data,” which
noted the IOT was “only in the very nascent stage,” the president called on
Congress to pass data-breach notification requirements for consumers, and a separate
plan limiting data collection on children and teenagers. But when the White
House released its own draft bill earlier
this year, it was promptly attacked by tech companies complaining it would
stifle innovation and privacy advocates who saw the bill as a sellout to the
Absent action on a larger privacy bill,
lawmakers are taking on some IOT issues in piecemeal oversight fashion. For
and Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee
partnered in May to send letters to 17 U.S. and
foreign auto manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asking what they’re doing to secure
the data collected on Americans by their new automated cars.
Some lawmakers are trying to extend
privacy safeguards into these new realms. Sen. Ed Markey
(D-Mass.) asked three years ago, back when he was still in the House, for the
Food and Drug Administration to improve its oversight of implantable wireless
medical devices that could be controlled by hackers — a risk that only grows more
troubling as the technology is added to health care practices and media reports
find examples of potentially haywire insulin pumps
“It’s always better to legislate in anticipation of problems being
created,” Markey told me. “But sometimes it actually takes the event
to have occurred, which triggers the political outrage that then makes it
possible to legislate.”
But Markey was an outlier in Congress. The industry’s
favorite sound bite, about the need for government to use a “light touch” on the IOT, has become a cliché among lawmakers. Two committee hearings earlier this year on Capitol
Hill were actually the first conducted specifically on the Internet of Things.
A few weeks later, the Senate unanimously
adopted a nonbinding resolution that was all
about the upsides of the Internet of Things.
The statement described a new business sector that
could “generate trillions of dollars in economic opportunity” and
“empower consumers in nearly every aspect of their daily lives.” Only once, near the end of the 450-word resolution, did a negative connotation come along: “The United States should prioritize
accelerating the development and deployment of the Internet of Things in a way
that recognizes its benefits, allows for future innovation, and responsibly
protects against misuse.”
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), one of the resolution’s lead sponsors, said in an
interview that she’d pushed the measure because she wanted the Senate to be
“proactive, for a change.” It was an easy lift getting it adopted,
Senate aides said, though a few Republican conservatives posed “reflexive”
whether even this supportive, pro-development measure might
not end up creating a precedent for the federal government to control
Fischer said she’s been drawn into the Internet of Things because of the way
technology is transforming her state, from the agriculture fields where farmers
use GPS in their tractors to sensors that help them determine moisture content,
land grade and fertilizer needs. Considering the commercial goods being trucked in every direction across her state, she said she’s
also bullish on the benefits that the IOT can have for transportation.
In our interview, Fischer declined to name a single agency that she said was
going too far right now with Internet of Things-specific regulations. But she
also took credit for proposing legislation that she said prompted the FDA to back off regulating FitBit and other wearable devices.
“Ask me what the Internet of Things is. My unusual answer is, ‘I don’t know,’”
she said. “But there are people out there that experiment, and they’re
innovative and they’re entrepreneurs and they’re creating things like
mad, and that’s their job. And it should be our job in government to make
it easier for them to do their job and create and build without government
immediately throwing up roadblocks.”
The learning curve looks just as steep for everyone else in the Capitol. Texas
GOP Rep. Michael Burgess, chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee
with primary jurisdiction over the FTC, told me he’d recently been over to
the commission’s offices for a meeting covering the Internet of Things. It was his
first time there.
“I didn’t realize they were so close,” he said.
As for the Internet of Things Caucus, launched earlier this year by Issa and
Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), a former Microsoft employee, it’s only attracted 11 other members so far, and the first official meeting won’t be
until July at the earliest. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a caucus member
who made millions founding an electronic greeting card company before being
elected to Congress, misidentified the Democrat leading the group. Burgess said
he didn’t even know the new caucus existed.
Asked why the group was only now forming, even though the IOT concept has been
around for more than a decade, Issa, who from 2011 through 2014 vigorously investigated
the Obama administration from his perch atop the House Oversight and Government
Reform Committee, snapped, “I was busy.”
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH hasn’t exactly ignored the Internet of Things. At the extreme end is the FTC, which has emerged as
America’s chief enforcer on this topic. While it can’t go after technology firms specifically for privacy or
security reasons, the commission has
become a kind of data cop by using authority
that dates to the Franklin Roosevelt administration to take on companies
engaging in unfair or deceptive practices.
In 2013, the FTC launched its first Internet
of Things-specific case against the security and technology firm called TRENDnet, saying the Los Angeles-based
company didn’t do enough to protect its customers’ private camera feeds — hackers
had posted links to live feeds of nearly 700 of the cameras showing babies
sleeping in their cribs, children playing and adults going about their daily
Using its enforcement powers, the FTC challenged a China-based developer
of the mobile application BabyBus last December because it appeared to collect
specific geolocation data on users — millions had downloaded the system — without
getting parental consent. And in February, it forced settlements with marketers of two mobile apps — MelApp and Mole Detective — for claiming they could detect symptoms of melanoma, even in early stages.
The FTC in January also unveiled one of the most comprehensive government looks to date
on the Internet of Things, with a staff-written report that urged
tech companies to build security into their products and services from the
outset, to minimize data collection and give consumers more notice and choice
about how their data will be used. But the FTC analysis ducked questions about
specific laws that might be needed to handle this new frontier, instead supporting
Obama’s broader privacy bill that has been stuck in Congress.
“I think we’re all in kind of an educational phase,” Maureen
Ohlhausen, a Republican FTC commissioner appointed during the Obama era, said in an
interview. “It’s a little hard to say anybody has a handle on all of it at
The two agencies most actively writing rules on the Internet of Things also are
going out of their way to demonstrate that their intentions are not to stop the
Internet of Things. At the FAA, Huerta recently boasted that his upcoming drone plan is “the most flexible
regime for unmanned aircraft 55 pounds or less that exists anywhere in the
At the Transportation Department, Secretary Anthony Foxx is speeding up
NHTSA’s schedule to complete regulations by the end of this year — instead of 2016 —
that eventually would mandate communications equipment requiring all new
vehicles to connect with one another. He made the announcement during a recent
visit to Silicon Valley, insisting during the stop that the rules would prevent
deadly accidents and “eventually produce a car that drives itself better than
a human being can.”
Back in Washington, Foxx told me in a brief interview that the government’s
Internet of Things strategy remained in its infancy.
“It’s all under construction,” he said. “We’re trying to move faster.
We’re trying to be smart about it, and obviously with a primacy on safety,
which is our mission. I think the future is bright for technology. It’s
just a matter of making sure the processes that we have built over the last 100
years work for the next 100 years.”
Some of the other federal agencies haven’t yet been forced to answer the
regulatory questions, giving them a chance to hang back and defer to the
“It seems to me that maybe incentivizing and encouraging as opposed to
regulating may be a new dynamic and something for government to begin thinking
about in this 21st century,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a USDA-sponsored conference in February. “With innovation and technology, anyway, it’s
something to think about.”
The Energy Department seems to be taking a similar approach:
encouraging, with a note of caution. Electric utility providers are deploying
so-called Smart Grid technologies that compile detailed information about a
household’s energy use. Aware of the potential risks in holding such sensitive
data, the department earlier
this year touted a voluntary code of conduct it created with industry to help protect this information.
At the Commerce Department, the National Telecommunications & Information
Administration has been leading public talks since 2013 to come up with voluntary rules for
industry as it develops facial recognition technology, though POLITICO Pro’s
Tony Romm recently reported that privacy groups just bailed on the effort because they saw it as too industry-driven.
Several departments are trying to showcase how the
Internet of Things would work for their own missions. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is studying the viability of network sensors that can monitor dangerous pollutants including ozone,
particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. At the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, scientists partnered with industry, conservationists and academia are using acoustic buoys, real-time data and historical migration metrics to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. The Homeland Security
Department just partnered with the Air Force Academy in search of ideas
for wearable equipment for emergency first responders, including sensors and
other items that link up voice and data communications.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, another arm of the
wide-ranging Commerce Department, may be thinking the most broadly about the
Internet of Things. It has no regulatory powers, but it is delving into the
underlying technical structures that can help the different gadgets work
together. This points to another kind
of government intervention, one that could help the industry and consumers by
creating order out of what’s starting to become a commercial free-for-all.
we want to promote is a coordinated national strategy for a globally
interoperable Internet of Things. Having a local IOT doesn’t make sense,”
Christopher Greer, director of NIST’s Smart Grid and Cyber-Physical Systems
program, told me in an interview.
ULTIMATELY, THE BUCK for most of these
agencies stops with Obama’s White House. The Democrat did win both of his terms
using an unprecedented array of data and digital technology. But his
record is mixed so far when it comes to tech-forward governing.
Under Obama’s watch, leaker Edward Snowden exposed the post-9/11 National
Security Agency program that collected vast troves of metadata on Americans’
telephone records. Obama’s signature health care law collapsed at crucial
moments because of website failures and a clunky digital infrastructure. The
Office of Personnel Management earlier this month disclosed it was the victim
of the worst hacking in U.S. government history.
The White House has had responses to all of those challenges, but it has yet to
come up with any kind of coordinated strategy for what’s ahead on the Internet
of Things. “Our overarching goal in this space,” a White House spokeswoman
wrote me via email, “is to encourage technological advances that deliver great
benefit for the American people, and to ensure that policy decisions are
informed by our best understanding of technology.” This isn’t an easy balance,
and there’s steady pressure on Obama from all sides. The FBI, for example,
wants to have back-door access to see decrypted data on smartphones — a
policy the tech industry vigorously opposes.
Obama’s top advisers say they are still reviewing recommendations from that November 2014
report by the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory
Committee, which included calls for much greater coordination across federal
agencies and departments, a NIST-written definition of what the Internet of
Things is, and a more thorough accounting by the White House Office of Management and Budget of how much federal money is spent on
IOT security. For now,
they also say they want to stay on the regulatory sidelines and largely let the private
“We look at this from a lens of playing a supportive role,” Daniel Correa, a
senior adviser for innovation policy at the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy, recently told a panel at Microsoft’s Washington, D.C.,
“We’re not going to have a Department of the Internet of Things,” added Tom Kalil, the
deputy policy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology
Policy, in an interview. “But we can have a sense for where we are
now, where we’d like to be over the short, medium and long term and what is a
sensible division of labor based on the roles and responsibilities of different
WHAT I CAME to realize, in the
course of my reporting, is that there’s an underlying mismatch between the way
government handles issues and the way this new technology actually works.
Government operates in silos — in Congress, committees often fight one another for jurisdiction harder than Democrats clash with Republicans; all the
agencies, departments and commissions that make up the federal executive branch
maintain separate fiefdoms for everything from agriculture, to defense, to
transportation and energy.
The IOT is precisely the opposite. It is a freewheeling system of
integrated objects and networks, growing horizontally, destroying barriers so
that people and systems that never previously communicated now can. Already,
apps on a smartphone can log health information, control your energy use and
communicate with your car — a set of functions that crosses jurisdictions of at least four
different government agencies.
What that means, many predict, is that the government
and the tech industries will always be moving in different directions.
“I don’t think we’re going to get a unification of jurisdictions,” said Stan Crosley,
director of the Indiana University Center for Law, Ethics and Applied Research in Health Information.
“At best, we
can get a harmonization, and I don’t think that’s possible.”
Suggestions abound for what government should do. At the local level, nearly everyone agrees that the
feds need to help develop some basic standards so that
the whole country can work together. Michael Mattmiller, Seattle’s chief
technology officer, said techies in his city want to push their IOT applications
nationwide but need some basic federal coding rules in place first to make sure
everyone’s speaking the same language — something as simple as the number of fields in a home address, for instance, could render a great piece of Seattle civic technology totally useless for Chicago.
Issa and a couple other lawmakers said the Internet of Things would benefit
from a blue-ribbon commission of experts from the ranks of industry,
government, privacy and academia who can study the full suite of issues and
report back with recommendations on legislative and regulatory policy fixes.
“I worry about commissions as just being make-work. But in this case, I think it
would follow in a good tradition of commissions that would make a difference,”
said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
Fischer wants to see Congress put pen to paper writing the country’s Internet
of Things strategy. But to get there, she acknowledged she needs to help her
colleagues out by pointing out to them all of the examples in their own
everyday lives that involve the Internet of Things.
“I should be better at that,” she told me after I’d run through a list of
all the different House and Senate panels that could conceivably be holding
Internet of Things-focused hearings.
“You’re pointing things out that I’m going, ‘yeah, that’s right.’ I’m on
Armed Services and chair of the Emerging Threats Subcommittee, so we deal with
cybersecurity. And yeah, there’s a lot there that my colleagues on Armed
Services probably don’t realize it’s the Internet of Things. So we need to be
better messengers and get that vocabulary out there.”
Markey praised the FTC for pushing ahead with Internet of Things cases. What’s most needed now, he told
me, was a level of White House leadership that hasn’t yet emerged. “I’m not sure it’s been elevated yet to the level that it should be in order to
have a comprehensive plan that is articulated and then understood by every
agency,” he said. “I think it’s a lot more scattershot.”
Hill, the technology and policy expert tied to George Mason University, pointed
out that he once worked in a government agency that did exactly
this kind of work. Called the Office of Technology
Assessment, it was created in 1972 by Congress to navigate topical issues like energy and the environment, as well as a scary
mix of Cold War-inspired science and technology questions. With as many as 140 staffers at times and
a budget that topped out at more than $20 million — Defense Secretary Ash Carter
is also an alum — the office produced more than 800 studies and reports on
everything from biotechnology to aerospace and military technology. But the office drew conservatives’ ire in part by questioning the Reagan
administration’s wisdom in pursuing the Star Wars missile-defense system, and when
Newt Gingrich and the 1994 GOP-led Congress came
to power, they defunded the office (with support from Democrats like Nevada Sen. Harry Reid) and effectively killed it.
The IOT, Hill told me, “would have been subject to an intensive
examination from this office. Not necessarily hostile, either. But it would have
pointed out I’m sure very early and very loudly the security issues, the
liability issues, potential problems with systems out of control or getting
captured by commercial interests. It would have also pointed out the great
possibility for improvement of health care, home management and personal
Hill said government’s challenge in handling the Internet of Things remains so
complicated because of how government has treated the Internet itself — it’s
never quite settled on how to regulate it and partially defers to nonprofit
international bodies. With the IOT, he said, the challenges get even more
“Everyone from the DOE to the CIA to the NSA has got a place in this thing,”
Hill said, “plus the FTC and the NIH and the public service and the State
“I don’t know of anything else like that in technology history,” he
added. “I think it may well be a unique beast.”