Facebook eyes Internet of things control

Lauren Kate Rawlins
By Lauren Kate Rawlins, ITWeb digital and innovation contributor.
Johannesburg, 29 Aug 2016
Facebook wants users' accounts to become control centres for connected devices.
Facebook wants users' accounts to become control centres for connected devices.

The world's largest social network is preparing for the onslaught of connected devices in the impending Internet of things (IOTs) revolution by reimaging Facebook users' accounts as the command centre for all their smart tech.

A US patent application filed by the company this month details a system where users can operate their IOT devices with their Facebook accounts.

It describes how a social network will be able to identify a machine, such as a baby monitor or kettle, and the connection between the machine and the owner. This can be done with multiple devices. Once these connections are established, the owner is able to activate and control the machines through the social network.

Machines mentioned in the patent include a thermostat, automobile, drone, toaster, computer, refrigerator, air-conditioner, robot, vacuum, actuator and heater.

The owner is also able to give other people on the social network access to operate certain machines. For example, a business owner may allow employees control over air-conditioning but not CCTV cameras.

Connected devices currently available on the market require the user to download a single-purpose app. Connecting all machines to Facebook will allow users to do away with superfluous applications and have one place from which everything is controlled.

The company is clearly serious about the proposition, as it filed a similar patent application in March.

Strange bedfellows

Facebook is premised on social interactions between people. This move would emphasis interactions between machines and humans, possibly changing how the platform is used.

Gartner predicts IOT will reach mainstream adoption in the next two to five years in Africa. Cisco says global machine-to-machine connections are calculated to grow nearly three-fold from 4.9 billion in 2015 to 12.2 billion by 2020.

Facebook wants to become the middleman in the inevitable IOT future.

It already connects nearly two billion people of the seven billion worldwide population. Connecting each of those users to all their smart tech would increase the amount of time users spend on the platform, and therefore increase the number of adverts that can be shown to them.

ICT analyst Adrian Schofield says IOT is another example of innovative technology offering opportunities for enterprises to increase productivity and competitiveness.

"This is an example of an enterprise using the opportunity before the opposition. Is it an obvious fit? I am not so sure."

"By 2020, IOT will be so mainstream that even ordinary consumers will know what the initials mean," says Arthur Goldstuck, World Wide Worx MD.

"That means any organisation involved with connectivity needs to develop an IOT strategy as soon as possible, as it will be far more expensive to do so when they are forced to by customers or demands of the business environment."

He says social networks are integrated with IOT by virtue of the fact that they are used primarily on mobile phones.

"As mobile phones also become the hub for controlling connected things in homes and elsewhere, it would be no surprise if social networks extend their reach to managing these things. In effect, they are taking the enterprise concept of mobile device management into the home and personal environment via IOT."

Security risks

Goldstuck says there will be many security challenges to managing IOT.

"Social networks already have massive security challenges of their own. Marrying the two will multiply the security challenge. Privacy will be one of the battlefronts of IOT."

But, he says: "Most people gladly surrender their privacy in return for the utility they gain as a result."

Schofield says it is not only the obvious threats, like a hacker using a person's Facebook account to operate their home or office devices, "it is the information those devices may make available that could result in massive losses".

Dominique Guinard, co-founder and CTO of EVRYTHNG, an IOT platform builder, told UK Web publication Internet of Business: "The security issues are not necessarily greater than with other IOT systems, as sharing can be based on standard authentication systems."

However, he said: "In terms of Facebook gaining access to critical information, this indeed could be a concern but if implemented correctly, Facebook does not need to have direct access to the devices (eg, by using an authentication proxy that gives access to things through Facebook). What they would, however, probably gain access to are the usage patterns of our physical devices which is highly valuable information and, in some cases, highly private information."