Spamming the Internet of Things

October 17, 2011

Spam used to refer to unsolicited email, but is slowly becoming a generic term for unsolicited data. There is Spam over Internet Telephony (called SPIT). And there is Spam in Augmented Reality (maybe we should call that SPAR?). How does it work, and what are the risks?

There are several ways to implement augmented reality. One way is define patterns, visual objects that can easily be recognised in a video stream. One simple example are QR codes. But in the future these patterns may be much more complex and may be unrecognisable as such by the human eye when watching a scene. Anchors can be attached to a pattern. These anchors trigger events, for example showing a message, whenever the pattern is in view (and when enabled by the user).

If unwanted patterns or unwanted anchors are fed into the system, this effectively leads to spam. The particularly nasty aspect, in my mind, is that anchors may trigger subliminal stimuli. There is a famous experiment from the 60's by James Vicary who claimed that inserting single-frame images of Coca-Cola and popcorn in a movie had positive effects on the sale of these products after the movie. The images were shown for such a brief moment, that the viewers were not aware that these were actually shown. Although Vicary later admitted that the experiment was methodologically flawed, and psychologists currently have doubts that subliminal stimuli can be used to change behaviour and therefore be used for advertising effectively, the lack of transparency and control is worrisome.

The Internet of Things is similarly susceptible to spam, including the subliminal use of it. In the Internet of Things we intuitively interact with the virtual world using physical objects. This interaction is often implicit, not requiring any explicit action from our side. Moreover, the interaction is bidirectional, often resulting in a change in our direct environment. How this change comes about is unclear. The process is as opaque as Google's page rank or add selection process... Other sources of information, and interests of other parties (think companies wanting to sell you something) may play an important role in determining the environment you are in. Without you being aware of this.… The opportunities for influencing your behaviour are seemingly endless.

The important lesson is the following. Whatever channel is available to reach us, will be used to influence us. It is of utmost importance to be aware of this, and ensure that the use of these channels is transparent to everyone. Moreover, abuse of such channels should be forbidden, and prosecuted.

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