The Internet of Things - What Is It Anyway?

User Written by Duncan Taylor on August 04, 2017.

The Internet of Things - What Is It Anyway?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term which has been in use in tech circles for many years but is rapidly entering common language from what was once a futuristic vision to reality. But what exactly is it?

Simply put, the Internet of Things is the connectivity of devices to the internet. This doesn’t just mean our computers, smartphones and laptops but will become anything which has an on and off switch in both domestic and commercial environments. Your kettle, toaster, fridge and car will soon all be connected to the IoT, as will lighting and heating in industrial plants, jet engines and manufacturing processes. Our cities will be transformed with a multitude of connected sensors which can monitor everything from the quality of the air to real-time traffic data and available parking spaces.

Estimates vary as to just how many connected devices will exist in the future but 50bn by 2020 is not an unrealistic figure. Experts believe that by 2020 the number of connected vehicles on our roads will exceed 250mn.

It is not difficult to see how this will revolutionise our lives and bring benefits. On a personal level it is already possible to control your central heating or the lights in your house remotely using apps. Devices such as smart fridges which monitor when you are running low on food items, put them on a shopping list and even order them for you are not far from becoming reality. Experts are predicting alarm clocks which monitor your breathing to guage where you are in your sleep cycle and avoid waking you up in the middle of it.

Sensors which monitor traffic data in real time combined with connected cars and smart phones will enable commuters to adjust their journeys to avoid congestion, reducing journey times, and mobile parking apps will bring a happy end to driving round in circles to find a traffic space. The possibilities really are endless.

On a bigger scale cities will be transformed by IoT with benefits including more efficient energy use, improved transport systems and reduced congestion. ‘Smart’ buildings will be able to generate their own electricity from renewable sources with more efficient distribution and storage of that power which will create energy systems which are cleaner and more stable. Ecologically, the benefits to the planet will be huge.

But of course, with all the advantages that the IoT will bring, there are some downsides. The largest of these by far is the issue of security. The proliferation of connected devices means that there is an ever-increasing number of potential targets for hackers. Huge amounts of personal information and data are at risk of falling into the wrong hands and being used against us. We have already seen two massive cyber attacks in the last few months which have had a devastating effect on both individuals and organisations such as the NHS.

In a domestic setting for example, it is easy to see how the data on your smart electricity meter falling into the wrong hands could enable thieves to work out times when you are absent so that they can target your home. And it’s all very well if your fridge is able to order you more butter when you run out but do you want your insurer gaining access to this kind of data? What are the implications if your health insurer is able to tap into information showing that your lifestyle choices are less than exemplary? It’s great to be able to find a parking space easily in your connected car but less fantastic that our whereabouts can be tracked 24/7 with all the Big Brother ramifications that implies.

When a whole city is connected, infrastructure becomes vulnerable and the scope and scale of the risks becomes huge. The worst-case scenarios could have cataclysmic consequences. Imagine a cyber attack on the power grid which caused total blackout and the impact it would have on millions of individuals and businesses. Or if terrorist saboteurs gained access to the control systems of a nuclear processing plant.

So what can you do on a personal level to secure your data and make yourself less vulnerable? You will find some advice on this in my previous post and it will also be interesting to see how the tools to protect our privacy develop over the next few years. Already there is mounting pressure on manufacturers to build better security into devices from the outset and there will doubtless be some revolutionary game changers. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University for example are developing personal privacy assistants which will run on our smartphones and watches to give us the power to maintain control of our private digital data.

The potential of the Internet of Things is extremely exciting but security must be a top priority to ensure that the wealth of data captured by such a huge number of connected devices does not fall into the wrong hands.

Duncan Taylor

Duncan Taylor

Posted on August 04, 2017 in Viewpoint.