Maker-craft: An Alternative (and More Secure) Approach to the Internet of Things?

With estimates of up to 50 billion smart devices coming online by 2020, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a panacea for our want-to-be-wired world. Everyday items from cars to thermostats to hair brushes (yes, seriously) are being ‘smartified’, whether we need them to be or not. But all of this connectivity is creating substantial privacy and security concerns as well—because of the data that will be collected about our behaviors and preferences, and because of the internet’s considerable vulnerabilities, including rampant cyberattacks.

One bright mind is devising a way around these pitfalls while still being able to reap the IoT’s benefits. His solution? Becoming a “Maker.” I recently visited with Dr. Ulrich Norbisrath to see first-hand his Home Automation method, which may hold great promise for a different approach to IoT.

First, what is a Maker? Dr. Norbisrath defines it as “a person who physically creates and integrates things from commonly available recipes…The process of Making creates value, as the finished product is more valuable than its parts and can often be sold. It is, therefore, comparable with manufacturing—on a small scale.”

So how does one Make smart, connected devices out of “commonly available” items? Dr. Norbisrath has created an “eHome” network from affordable parts such as wireless micro computers ($3 each), Raspberry Pi micro computers (higher cost at around $10-$35), low cost power supplies and adapters, small servo motors (~$2.50), push buttons (~$1-2) and other inexpensive piece parts like wire, card stock, glue, screws, washers and nuts—all easily sourced online or at local stores. He repurposes old smart phones for control panels.

Of course there is technical know-how required, as well as some good software to work from. Dr. Norbisrath relies on open source software such as the Home Assistant home automation platform, snapcast for multi-room synchronous sound, the Raspberry Pi Operating System Raspbian, and Micropython as the operating system for the other micro computers. These tools and parts are within budget of most students and other Makers looking to create their own IoTs.

Using this self-built collection of smart devices, Dr. Norbisrath controls many operations in his home: a smart lock for the door, smart light switches, smart stereo, smart temperature sensors—all managed from his smart phone over local secure wifi when in range, or secure VPN when farther away. The devices connect to partitioned networks for added security, although he has built an interface to expose each device to his Amazon Echo, if and when he chooses to do so.

While all of this “making” can be fun, what’s the real point? Dr. Norbisrath relishes the conveniences and efficiencies of home automation, but he also sees other significant benefits. A separate IoT that is not continuously connected to the internet is far more secure and private than the legion of smart devices that push everything through the cloud. A personal IoT could also enable digital forensics inside the automated home. For instance, you would be able to determine how often devices connect, when, who connected them and where they connected to. Further, with the right know-how, makers’ connected devices and networks can be done at a much lower cost than commercially available IoT offerings.

Dr. Norbisrath noted that “You can, in a relatively non-invasive way, automate your home. Doing it this way, it’s much more secure and private. I know what I am doing, and I know what my devices are doing.”

He sees home automation as just the start, with myriad other potential applications. Looking at the bigger picture, this kind of Making can teach people to apply technology in their daily life. Educating people on how to build even simple connected devices will help them develop technical skills needed in the job market. Extrapolate that out, and it can be a way to empower local communities and bring a new type of manufacturing back to the US.

The rush to the Internet of Things is both benefitting and exposing us as individuals and as a society. Perhaps a growing community of Makers will help enable a more balanced approach that puts users more in control of their own digital destiny.

For more information about Dr. Norbisrath’s work, please visit:


Dr. Norbisrath’s ‘eHome Demonstrator’ incorporating 13 computers, on display at the recent Maker Faire, built and supported  by George Mason University’s MIX (Mason Innovation Exchange).

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