There’s nothing like an Internet outage to demonstrate precisely how much power is focused in the hands of the few. Two weeks ago, at 12:47 pm EST, Amazon Web Services experienced a 3S outage for several hours, taking websites, apps and devices either fully or partially down with it. “Affected websites and services include(d) Quora, newsletter provider Sailthru, Business Insider, Giphy, image hosting at a number of publisher websites, filesharing in Slack, and many more. Connected lightbulbs, thermostats and other IoT hardware (was) also being impacted, with many unable to control these devices as a result of the outage,” Techcrunch reported. “Amazon S3 is used by around 148,213 websites, and 121,761 unique domains, according to data tracked by SimilarTech, and its popularity as a content host concentrates specifically in the U.S. It’s used by 0.8 percent of the top 1 million websites.”
“Notably, this wasn’t technically an “outage,” since Amazon’s S3 wasn’t not entirely out of commission and some services were only partially affected,” says Business Insider, which, once again, failed to disclose that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was a major investor in the publication.
It was back up some four hours later and as often happens with tech, we’re apoplectic when our devices don’t work for a while, but once all is resolved, it’s usually more or less a case of business as usual, and in the case of the S3 outage, it may well have even given a few people a brief respite from the government listening posts.
But wait! There’s more! And all things considered, it was hardly a case of nothing to see here.
We’re still in the relatively nascent days of the Internet of Things and connected homes/lives, and if anything, the outage is a heads up: attention must be paid here. There’s actually quite a bit to see here, much of which was not reported. “Also affected were TV remotes, lights, connected ranges (one person tweeted that he couldn’t turn off his oven, and it was getting rather toasty at Chez @_Pronto), or couldn’t turn down the heat in their homes/apartments…This debacle could have been avoided if connected devices could run offline, and weren’t dependent on the cloud,” notes Randi Hindi on Medium, which was also down for a few hours. “Right now if you have a cloud-based IoT lightbulb, every time you switch it on, the control hub sends a request to the cloud, gets a response back, and then sends a radio signal to the lightbulb. It travels thousands of miles, sending data around, just to turn on a light that’s a few meters away. That’s the modern equivalent of having to call your electricity provider each time you want to turn your physical lights on or off! Having a connected home that runs on a cloud server is akin to having a lock on your door and being forced by a corporation to hand over the key.
“So is everyone with connected lightbulbs somehow run through s3 just … in the dark right now? No cloud. No light. That’s how fragile we’re becoming with all these unnecessary layers of complexity.”
All of which adds up to a lot of power in the hands of the few – and a lot of vulnerability in the world at large. Without Skynet even (yet) being factored into the equation. We don’t mean to sound the alarm about some perhaps distant dystopian scenario, but this outage was a wake up call not only on the subject of connected devices, present and future, and the need for a kill switch/override/on-device tech controlled by the owner of the devices rather than a corporation, or at least redundancy. Your devices are your devices and need to be under your control, rather than running in the cloud. With connected locks/home security, would you be comfortable with turning over the literal keys to your kingdom to tech employees who are sharing a home with 50 other people because they can’t afford their own place? Well, maybe not presently, and not without your help, voluntary or not. That’s life in the Valley, wherein lie many of the virtual keys to the kingdom. Literally.
As Wired warns, “Some of the web’s founding thinkers have been working alongside younger hackers to try to make the internet more truly a decentralized utopia. In the meantime the tech giants have only gotten bigger, pulling ever-more of the internet into their orbit. Until the web breaks free from that gravitational pull, expect more internet outages.”
Who needs EMPs to disrupt electronics?
And note to self, according to the Wired piece, “The S3 storage service alone hosts about 1.6 times more data than its major competitors combined, according to the analyst firm Gartner.”
Supposedly, the outage was due to human error. Of course, if we were conspiracy theorists, we would recall The Details About the CIA’s Deal With Amazon (“A $600 million computing cloud built by an outside company is a “radical departure” for the risk-averse intelligence community”) and might even mention that Wikileaks released Vault 7 not too long before the S3 outage (password: SplinterItIntoAThousandPiecesAndScatterItIntoTheWind). But far be it from us to go there.
We’ve grown so inured to handing over our privacy/data to tech companies that doing so with connected devices seems like just another day in the wonderful world of tech/convenience. Time to hit the brakes before connected devices become even more ubiquitous, and keep in mind that we refer to the vertical as the Internet of Things, rather than the Internet of Devices, which is much more specific and accurate. Words and names always have a certain power to them, and a very good time to take heed to this one. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘wit is an epitaph on an emotion,’ or as SOS reader Andy Harrison once noted to us, you can’t spell ‘idiot’ without IoT. Onward and forward.