March 18, 2019

One Trillion Internet-Connected Devices: Is There Cause for Concern?

Bill Link

Bill Link
Global V.P. - People Support & Development and Communications/2THEDGE

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It doesn’t take much technical competence to understand that the pace of technological change is speeding up. This acceleration is due in no small measure to the emergence of the Internet.  In a little more than 100 years, technological development has taken us from the first telephone call (1876), to the first website (1991). A mere 16 years elapsed between the appearance of the Internet and the first iPhone (2007). Since 2007, significant technological break-throughs have included autonomous vehicles, electric cars, tablets, augmented reality, the bionic eye, social media, and genetic engineering, to list a few. Along with faster technological innovation has come faster user adoption. As evidence of this trend, consider how quickly people have adopted technology through the years.  The AM/FM radio had 50 million users 38 years after its invention. TV reached 50 million viewers after 12 years, the Internet after 3 years, and Twitter after only 9 months.

One of the fastest growing technology segments is the Internet of Things (“IoT”). Currently, there are 17 billion Internet-connected devices globally including, smart phones, tablets, laptops, and fixed line phones. McKinsey expects that number to reach 1 trillion by 2025 – a 59-fold increase!  While many experts disagree with this figure, the number of Internet-connected devices in use is rising dramatically. As the use of these devices becomes more and more common, should we be concerned about any health and environmental consequences from all the wireless signals?

While there is no federal government standard for safe levels of radiofrequency (“RF”) energy, several federal agencies have been involved in monitoring and investigating alleged issues from exposure to RF energy including, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”). Readers  interested in exploring government monitoring government monitoring of RF exposure can check the World Health Organization webpage, https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/electromagnetic-fields-and-public-health-mobile-phones) and the FDA webpage on radiation-emitting products.   

Although the FDA has issued guidelines for safe emissions of RF emissions from microwave ovens, federal, state and local government agencies have relied on RF exposure standards organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (“IEEE”) and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (“NCRP”) have established. In fact, acting on advice from the IEEE and NCRP, the FCC adopted a Specific Absorption Rate (“SAR”) RF emission guideline. SAR is a measurement of the body’s absorption of RF energy, and the FCC’s allowable SAR is 1.6 watts per kilogram of body weight. 

Currently, the FCC requires all wireless devices sold in the U.S. to be tested to ensure they do not exceed the SAR limit while the device is operating at the highest power level.  All wireless devices sold in the US go through a formal FCC approval process. The FCC requires manufacturers to provide a test report indicating the SAR level for the devices it produces. If the Agency finds that the actual SAR does not confirm what the test report indicates, it can withdraw approval and commence an enforcement action.

Some public interest groups have interpreted certain research to suggest that wireless device use can cause cancer and other illnesses, especially in children because of their thinner skulls. These assertions have gained increased public attention but, currently, no scientific evidence establishes a definitive causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses, and the FCC finds no basis for establishing a different safety threshold from current requirements (the FCC  acknowledges, though, some studies that conclude wireless signals may interfere with implanted cardiac pacemakers if used within eight inches of the pacemaker; it advises pacemaker users that they may want to avoid placing or using a wireless device this close to a pacemaker). Understandably, many experts and users do believe that more and longer-term studies of the potential risks of wireless devices are necessary.

Not everyone agrees with the government’s conclusions. One of the most outspoken of the critics is Dr. Rajan Pandey, physician, researcher and blogger. He claims that use of “around-the-clock” Internet-connected devices, such as cell phones and wearables like smart watches pose one of the most formidable health hazards of our time. The continuous connectivity of devices, he maintains, is wreaking havoc on the human body with constant radiation, which he calls a “slow poison.” Pandey points to some studies that suggest possible side effects from continuing exposure that include low sperm count, headaches, eye irritation, loss of appetite, nausea, sleep disruption, and mood swings. This risk, he contends, is greater for children as they have thinner skulls than adults.  While one inter-connected device may not exceed the government’s SAR guideline, it is the incessant use of the device, and the growing number of devices each household has that causes concern.

Apart from health concerns, another consideration is the effect of such devices on the environment. Supporters of IoT point to potential benefits such as environmental sensors that can detect pollution, smart thermostats that can help save money on electric bills, and a new agriculture technology that can save water by giving crops exactly the amount they need and no more. Of course, the manufacture of all these devices will require raw materials and, then, there is the problem of the disposition of old devices as the technology evolves. Part of the disposal issue is related to manufacturer “planned obsolescence” that seems to be increasing in frequency.

The carbon footprint problem may be hard to assess for some of these devices.  For example, Nest claims that in only eight weeks, its thermostats save enough energy to become carbon neutral relative to the amount of energy it takes to manufacture and distribute their devices. Other products like fitness trackers, kitchen appliances, and home security systems probably will have heavier footprints. 

Another significant environmental concern is the amount of energy the servers to which the devices are connected use. Of course, big data centers have a financial incentive (lowering power bills) to reduce the amount of energy their servers require. The issue really has more to do with the use of renewable energy sources. As the IoT grows, so does the pressure to develop more clean and renewable energy options.

McKinsey’s prediction of 1 trillion wireless devices in use by 2025 seems exaggerated; however, the number and variety of devices certainly is increasing significantly, as is the pace of user adoption. While there are some obvious benefits to Internet-connected devices for manufacturers and consumers, we would do well to consider possible health and environmental concerns as we push further into the wild, wild West.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my AdvisoryCloud profile.

 References

Federal Communications Commission. (2018). Wireless devices and health concerns. Retrieved January 15, 2019, from www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/wireless-devices-and-health-concerns

 

Finley, K. (2014). The Internet of things could drown our environment in gadgets. Retrieved January 15, 2019, from www.wired.com/2014/06/green-iot/

 

IOT Analytics. (2018). State of the IoT 2018: Number of IoT devices now at 7B – Market accelerating. Retrieved January 15, 2019, from https://iot-analytics.com/state-of-the-iot-update-q1-q2-2018-number-of-iot-devices-now-7b/

 

McKinsey Global Institute (2013). No ordinary disruption: The four forces breaking all the trends. Retrieved January 15, 2019, from www.slideshare.net/McKinseyCompany/no-ordinary-disruption-the-four-forces

 

Onedio. (2014). 20 inventions from the last 10 years that will amaze you. Retrieved January 15, 2019, from https://onedio.co/content/20-inventions-from-the-last-10-years-to-amaze-you-13738

 

Pandey, R. (2016). Wearable Tech: Health hazards in the era of ‘Internet of things.’ Retrieved January 15, 2019, from www.nagpurtoday.in/wearable-tech-health-hazards-in-the-era-of-internet-of-things/03141532

 

Unemyr, M. (2015). One trillion IoT devices expected by 2025: What development tools to use for development of internet connected IoT products? Retrieved January 15, 2019, from http://blog.atollic.com/one-trillion-iot-devices-expected-by-2025-what-development-tools-to-use-for-development-of-internet-connected-iot-products

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