Product safety in the Internet of Things

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

 

The ‘Internet of Things’. Yes, it’s a strange term. ‘Internet’ – yes. ‘Things’ – yes. But together?

The ‘Internet of Things’ is the term that’s being used for all the interconnected devices appearing on the market.  An increasing number of personal and household products are available that are controlled by a smartphone or by devices like Google Home.

IoT product safety

What might this mean for consumer safety?

Operating household products can happen through a smartphone which means it’s done remotely.

Products often come with warnings not to use them unattended, so a product that’s designed to be switched on remotely will need to be designed to do so safely.

It will also need consumers to take care to ensure no hazards are created in the home environment when a product is activated and there’s no-one home. For example, if you’re going to turn on the stove or heater remotely, can you be sure someone hasn’t left a box of tissues on top?

Inter-connectivity also exposes users to potential hacking. Much is being written and investigated on Internet of Things security, but electronic security can also impact safe product use.

In one curious example, researchers found they could hack into a Segway hoverboard. They did this to demonstrate how exposed to hacking an electronic product could be. Cybersecurity company IOActive used Bluetooth on a smartphone to interfere with a hoverboard being ridden nearby. Stopping the hoverboard’s operation would lead the rider to fall at speed and lead to some nasty injuries. While this might never happen, it does serve as an example of how vulnerable unsecured Internet of Things products may be.

A new world for product safety professionals and authorities

I am part of a panel at the international product safety symposium in Tokyo on 14-15 November 2017, put on by the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organisation (ICPHSO). There’s not one, but two sessions scheduled at the symposium to discuss the Internet of Things.

I’m looking forward to hearing from my fellow panellists on the work they’re doing to make Internet of Things devices safe and I will write again after the symposium.

At this stage, I think my main message is the need for product safety professionals and authorities to step outside their usual framing.

We’re used to physical hazards, like sharp edges, with products themselves. More recently, product safety has included dealing with chemical hazards. This has its own challenges but is still essentially confined to the immediate product.

The Internet of Things introduces a range of electronic engineering and telecommunications factors not previously within scope of general consumer product safety.

As well as big consumer goods companies, there’s an army of tinkerers in every neighbourhood who are playing with the Internet of Things. How much do they know about how to ensure product safety?

Product safety professionals and authorities need to widen our thinking and our networks to make sure product safety is on the agenda for this new cohort of product designers and controllers. And just as importantly, we need to listen and learn from others as to what new hazards might emerge and how we can collaborate to achieve safety into the future.

The Internet Society is an organisation with the mission: To promote the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world.

It promotes the ‘Multi-stakeholder framework’ for governance of the Internet in general, which also applies to the Internet of Things. I think we have to approach product safety in the Internet of Things in the same way.

Some of the approaches I explored for 3D printing and product safety are relevant in the Internet of Things.

As with 3D printing, the pace of change presents a challenge for lawmakers and standards setting. It will take some reframing to stay ahead of the game.