Connectivity 101: The Internet of Things

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A completely connected world is coming.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a popular buzzterm describing the future of our evolving world. Within the IoT literally anything can be connected to a computer network, via an IP address like the one in your computer, and allowed to transfer data without the need for human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

Gartner, an American information technology research and advisory firm, projects that by 2020 there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the IoT. The rapidly expanding, web-like “Internet" portion of the IoT is not nearly as difficult to comprehend as the “Things" part. The idea that any object, created by man or nature, can become “smart" is a little overwhelming.

A “Thing" could be a car, a cow with a biochip transponder, a fitness band on your wrist, a refrigerator, a glucometer, the jet engine of an airplane, or your cat's collar. These objects, in addition to billions of others, could become connected to the Internet with the help of sensors and actuators.

When Kevin Ashton of MIT coined the phrase “Internet of Things" way back in 1999, he said that it represented “a vision in which the Internet extends into the real world embracing everyday objects. Physical items…can be controlled remotely and can act as physical access points to Internet services."

First Things First: The first “Internet appliance" was a Coke machine at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. Programmers could check sensors to see how many drinks were present in the machine and if they were cold.

Sensors fall into a device category called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). They are often paired with a circuit programmed to track or respond to a specific sense—meaning that cameras and microphones become eyes and ears. These tiny detectors can track acceleration, electric and magnetic currents, levels and flow, torque and pressure, gases, vibrations, moisture, temperature, position, location, and more. These sensors relay data back to smartphones, computers and tablets in real time, so you—or other things—can adjust.

Here is an example: Your alarm goes off at 7 a.m., and prompts your coffeemaker to begin brewing a fresh pot. Simultaneously, your blinds open, letting in the morning sunlight. On the way to work, your car accesses your schedule and, checking traffic patterns online, redirects you to the shortest route. When you open the door to your private office, the thermostat adjusts to your ideal temperature. A printer recognizes it is low on ink and automatically orders more. Tables, windows, and walls are all touch screen sensitive. At home, your fridge evaluates which products are perishable and offers recipes for dinner. Once a recipe is selected, the oven begins to preheat. Lights turn on and off automatically as you enter and exit rooms. At the end of your day, your wearable fitness tracker delivers a report of calories consumed and steps taken, plus a summary of the progress you've made towards your long-term fitness goals.

Where's The Net? Most of these evolving smart devices aren't on the Internet directly, but instead communicate through basic wireless protocols.

This scenario is no longer a distant dream of the future. Technology is evolving at lightning speed to make daily, mundane tasks more efficient. The IoT is designed to make living better for everyone. But with great convenience comes great responsibility (and risk).

"By 2020, component costs will have come down to the point that connectivity will become a standard feature, even for processors costing less than $1," says Peter Middleton, research director at Gartner. “This opens up the possibility of connecting just about anything, from the very simple to the very complex, to offer remote control, monitoring and sensing … As product designers dream up ways to exploit the inherent connectivity that will be offered in intelligent products, we expect the variety of devices offered to explode."

All of these connected devices and sensors collect massive amounts of data that is fed to computers for analysis. When technology experts and critics discuss the IoT, security and privacy quickly surface as top concerns. The price of a more convenient and streamlined lifestyle is our personal data: the time we wake up, the way we like our eggs, the unique code which unlocks our front door.

Some Things Are Not Things: Somewhat counter-intuitively, computers, tablets, and smartphones are not considered “Things" in the IoT. This is because connectivity is built into them by design rather than added after the fact.

Questions around the collection, storage, and management of the unfathomable amount of data collected from billions of devices continue to arise, and many have yet to be answered. The IoT presents more opportunity for threats and breaches that accompany privacy and sharing. The consumer must weigh the costs of convenience, and be diligent in researching companies, products, and privacy policies.

Wired's Andrew Rose may have written the best warning in a 2013 article:

"…even tiny items of data in aggregate can identify, define, and label us without our knowledge. Bottom line: As technology becomes more entwined with the physical world, the consequences of security failures escalate. Like a game of chess–where simple rules can lead to almost limitless possibilities–the complexity of IoT interconnections rapidly outstrips our ability to unravel them."

Just like with current technology, the biggest threat to privacy from the Internet of Things is human error. Simple passwords and out of date software can leave devices and information vulnerable to hackers and thieves. The best way to protect your information and your devices is to:

  • Use a passcode on your phone and make sure it auto-locks when not in use
  • Read privacy policies carefully before agreeing to terms of use
  • Perform regular software updates on your apps, phone, computers, and devices
  • Use Wi-Fi Protected Access, which creates a secure, encrypted network connection
  • Use firewalls, anti-malware and anti-spyware on your computers
  • Create strong passwords using a case-sensitive mix of letters, numbers, and symbols

The IoT will revolutionize our world, helping save energy, time, money, and lives. It will also spark great debate over privacy and identities. Both are inevitable.

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