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When U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene and a Republican colleague set up a congressional caucus focusing on the Internet of Things, also known as IoT, some of her colleagues were puzzled.

“We got many responses back to our office saying, ‘What’s the ‘Eye-Ott’ project?'” the Washington state Democrat recalled today during a Seattle roundtable about “Eye-Ott” … that is, IoT.

The event was presented at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce by the Pacific Technology Alliance and Kymeta, a venture that’s headquartered in Redmond, Wash.

Even now, a year after the IoT caucus was formed, a lot of policymakers aren’t up to speed about the implications of having everything from airplanes and refrigerators to the assembly lines where they’re made connected to the internet.

“Technology is moving quickly,” DelBene said. “Policy is not moving as quickly.”

You could say that about a lot of technological issues, of course, but the Internet of Things is a particularly tricky and fast-moving concept. The engineers at Kymeta – which has the backing of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates – are finding more and more things that can be connected to the Internet of Things. Some experts estimate that as many as 38 billion devices around the world could be part of the IoT by 2020.

“IoT is a moving target,” Cate van Oppen, Kymeta’s business development manager, told GeekWire. “But it fits into existing vertical markets.”

Those potential markets include connected cars, ships, farm tractors and even the shipping containers that travel on trucks, trains and oceangoing freighters. Kymeta is developing a system that relies on flat-panel antennas that are no bigger than dinner plates to transmit and receive data via satellites at broadband speeds.

Suzan DelBene
Suzan DelBene

Adapting existing standards and regulations to cover the Internet of Things are likely to pose huge challenges for policymakers, DelBene said. The top issues on her list have to do with privacy and security.

“You don’t want to wake up and find out that your watch was hacked, that your thermostat was hacked, that your coffeemaker was hacked,” she said.

On the privacy front, DelBene been pushing for congressional passage of the Email Privacy Act, which would require federal authorities to get a warrant to gain access to emails older than 180 days. Under current law, only a subpoena is required. “It’s been over three years to get that moving forward,” the former Microsoft executive said.

She said the controversies over the National Security Agency’s data collection and the FBI’s efforts to access data on a terrorist’s smartphone demonstrate the challenges that policymakers face when it comes to security vs. privacy. “I don’t think the answer is mandating back doors,” she said.

Cloud-computing services that cross national borders pose another challenge for policymakers. DelBene pointed to a recent court case in which the judges rebuffed the federal government’s efforts to gain access to emails that Microsoft stored on a server in Ireland. “I actually have legislation to try to address that,” she said.

And there are still more issues to deal with: For example, what’s the best way to allocate broadcast spectrum for connected devices? How much should go to Bluetooth, to 5G and other mobile services, to satellite communications? What’s the best way to ensure that there’s interoperability between connected devices, so that consumers aren’t forced to buy their home alarm system and their garage door opener from the same company?

Fortunately, the issues raised by the IoT don’t tend to run afoul of party differences.

One indicator of that is the fact that DelBene, an early supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, partnered up with Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who backs Donald Trump, to create the “Eye-Ott” caucus.

“Most of our technology issues aren’t partisan,” DelBene said.

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