The Internet of (Military) Things

The world is changing. Some say it’s growing, some shrinking. Technology is the culprit regardless, and has been an ever expanding part of our lives for decades now, culminating in the Internet of Things, or IoT. This concept of interwoven devices serving humanity is more than your tweet-enabled Samsung smart fridge. As we leave 2020 behind it is clear the world grows darker, and this technology is being leveraged on the battlefield to give a cutting edge. Already widespread, the Internet of Military Things, IoMT, is being implemented by all contenders, so being left behind is simply not an option.

Most people in developed countries are already involved with the IoT, even if they don’t realize it. Smartphones are ubiquitous, no car leaves the assembly line without a microchip, subdermal medical devices monitor the elderly, pets have ID chip implants, and the more affluent have even more smart devices like the aforementioned refrigerator.(1) All of these are part of the Internet of Things in our daily lives. The IoT, simply put, is a network of interconnected devices that record and share data without the need for human intervention. Humans can be a part of this network, like when your smart fridge pushes a notification to your phone that you’re low on milk, and you should get more next time you’re at the store. A human need not be the end point of the system, such as with the safe driving monitoring devices given out by some insurance agencies. If it records erratic driving, sharp turns and high speed, then your premium will go up automatically. You start the data stream, but the end point is automated.

The Internet of Things is older than many would tell you, because the military has been using extensive IoT systems for over half a century now. Starting in the 1950’s the U.S.Navy developed the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), a vast interconnected network of sonars spread across the North Atlantic in order to keep tabs on Soviet submarines. Since the 1960’s air forces have been using Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACS, think passenger aircraft with big radar on top) that can interface with other aircraft’s systems, collating that data and its own to provide important tactical information to the engaged aircraft. Since the 1980’s the U.S.Navy again has been using AEGIS, an integrated air defense system linking sensory equipment and weapons directly to one another. The two primary surface combatants of the United States are built around this system, as well as numerous other classes from allied nations. Another military built IoT will be familiar, I’d be willing to bet you use it every day. The Global Positioning System, or GPS, was originally built to provide accurate navigation to frontline units, something armies have been searching for since the first caveman got lost raiding a Neanderthal village. This system of satellites and ground receivers was a major factor in the First Gulf War, allowing Coalition forces to traverse the vast, featureless deserts of southern Iraq and hit where they were least expected.

The military application of the Internet of Things isn’t restricted to isolated cold war relics. Countries continue to push the boundaries, building new systems that interconnect with each other to provide a better picture of the battlefield and make it more lethal for the enemy. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in 2016 launched the Internet of Battlefield Things (IOBT) Project. They are looking to: “Develop the underlying science of pervasive, heterogeneous sensing and actuation to enhance tactical Soldier and C2 system autonomy, miniaturization, information analytic capabilities against adversarial influence and control of the information battlespace; delivering intelligent, agile, and resilient decisional overmatch at significant standoff and optempo.”(3) In non-government speak, it means they want everything better, faster, stronger, and smaller. More specifically they are researching more secure networks for the Things, autonomous systems, and advanced analytics. They are also looking at things like machine learning and artificial intelligence in order to enable their primary research areas.(4)

In the dirt and blood of the modern world outside of academic labs, the IoMT is making a difference on today’s battlefields. The recent conflict for Nagorno-Karabakh has seen the first large scale deployment of drones and autonomous systems in a peer-for-peer conflict. The Azeri forces deployed large numbers of Turkish and Israeli drones in an integrated network, providing command and control, air support, reconnaissance, deep strikes, and counter battery strikes. Of particular note was the use of “kamikaze” drones, which could loiter autonomously for hours waiting for high value targets, such as armored vehicles or fuel trucks, and then attack. These drones are small, and are easily mistaken for birds if noticed at all. Networks of drones have been a staple of warfare in the Middle East for a decade now, first as the sole purview of the United States but more recently the Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War has seen the engagement of large numbers of drones in the north, and Israeli strikes have used drones in the south of the country, primarily on Iranian positions.

For the civilian market, you may have already stumbled onto one of the major concerns about the IoT. In both of these examples data about you is being collected, recorded, and stored by devices that you have little knowledge or administrator control over, instead handing that privilege off to corporations, and by extension governments (I never said anything about it being your government). You might think “Hang on a minute, I never said that!”, but the vast majority of these devices come with long, horribly dry, and legally binding terms of use. These may not even be legal by your national laws, but so few people actually read them that if hardly ever comes to light. This data is then used, whether by the company that collected it, the government that requisitioned it, or some other group the data got sold too. Remember, if you’re not paying for a product, you’re the product. That’s how Amazon knows what you want to buy before you do, or how all of your ads suddenly become machetes and beard oil around your father’s birthday.

Of course, privacy isn’t the only concern. Any device that can connect to the internet can be hacked, and some could prove to have disastrous consequences if compromised. It’s not hard to imagine ransomware that holds you hostage and puts your life on hold, essentially shutting down your own little IoT until you give in. Equally insidiously it could simply be used to facilitate identity theft, breach your bank account, and generally make your life miserable without recourse. It goes to show Hollywood’s lack of creativity that a hacked car’s brakes being disabled hasn’t been used in a big budget spy thriller yet.(2)

These concerns are not diminished with the IoMT, which faces even more expansive threats that go beyond ransomware and the all-knowing Amazon ads. As the use of smart weapons, digital command and control equipment, and other advanced military technologies move across the world, their vulnerabilities become more well known. The most prevalent threat in the current environment of rising tension is technology theft. The IoMT isn’t simply drones and satellites, it’s the network of support systems reaching all the way back to the contractors that develop and build these systems. While frontline systems are hardened and monitored against external threats, most of these support systems and networks are not, or have inadequate protection. The United States has only recently begun to require more thorough security protocols from its civilian contractors through the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC).

The world is changing, but the Internet of Things is here to stay, whether it’s in your home or hovering over the desert on the other side of the world. It provides a significant capability, and if leveraged correctly, can vastly increase productivity of work and leisure, or the lethality of warfare. The concept and technologies are already widespread, and in use militarily across the globe, there’s no stopping it now, so the only way forward is to mitigate its downsides. For the average citizen, a good VPN, good internet hygiene, and a habit of strong passwords can do wonders, but for the vastly more complex systems at play on the world stage, a more complex approach to security will need to be adopted and followed rigorously.

  1. What is IoT and how does it work? (https://internetofthingsagenda.techtarget.com/definition/Internet-of-Things-IoT)
  2. The trouble with the Internet of Things. (https://data.london.gov.uk/blog/the-trouble-with-the-internet-of-things/)
  3. Internet of Battlefield Things (https://www.arl.army.mil/business/collaborative-alliances/current-cras/iobt-cra/)
  4. Army Takes on Wicked Problems With the Internet of Battlefield Things (https://www.meritalk.com/articles/army-takes-on-wicked-problems-with-the-internet-of-battlefield-things/)

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