What is the Internet of Things?

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is already changing the world we live in, and has the potential to do far more. It refers to the connection of multiple devices over the internet, which can then communicate and exchange data with other devices, people and apps.

How does IoT work?

IoT does exactly what it says on the tin: it connects things over the internet, be that by a mobile network, WiFi, Bluetooth or one of the new generation of low power wide area networks (LPWANs).

It’s not the connection that’s important, it’s what that connection enables. It allows devices to communicate with one another and for them to be controlled remotely. The ‘things’ thus become smarter, allowing us to live and work more efficiently and bringing new ways of enriching our lives that just a few years ago would have seemed like science fiction.

What things can be connected?

Just about anything! The IoT is not a new concept, we’ve been using the internet to connect computers and more recently smartphones for years. But rapid advancements in technology mean that just about any ‘thing’ can now be connected to create an entire new smart world encompassing the home, vehicles, buildings, factories, cities, transport systems, utilities and more.

What are the use cases?

The ability to connect devices of all types and in massive numbers means that the use cases of the IoT are many, varied and almost limitless.

The consumer space is where arguably the most progress has been made in IoT, as it is relatively easy and cheap to design, build and connect devices such as thermostats, TVs or security cameras to the internet, and because the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google have made big bets on what will be a large and profitable market. The list is seemingly endless: virtual home assistants, smart lightbulbs that automatically turn on when it gets dark, connected coffee machines you can switch on so your drink’s ready when you want it, fridges that can add milk to the shopping list on your phone when they see you’re running low, wearable fitness trackers to help us get fit. They are all readily available on the market, and more are being added every day.

IOT use cases

What’s the point I hear you ask? Take a connected thermostat which can be turned on or off or the temperature adjusted from your smartphone, so you get home to a warm house when needed and energy is saved when not. That’s just the beginning, because the ability for that thermostat to communicate with other devices and apps means it can become smarter and automated. By communicating with your smartphone it can tell if you’re away from home and therefore if the heating needs to be on or not. By connecting with a weather service, it can predict the day’s temperature and adjust the heating accordingly.

In the transport space, most new cars nowadays have some form of connectivity but the IoT paves the way for autonomous or self-driving vehicles that will theoretically be safer and lead to fewer road accidents, less congestion, lower fuel consumption (and therefore lower emissions) and lower insurance premiums. Ultimately, car ownership could become a thing of the past: we will simply hail a self-driving car as and when we need it.

Connected cars also play a role in smart transport systems and smart cities, whereby sensors will be mounted on vehicles, road signs, the road themselves and buildings to collect data on everything from the availability of parking spaces to road conditions to environmental conditions. Refuse collection, road repair crews or salting trucks will be automatically deployed where and when they are needed. Traffic signals will adapt based on traffic flow, and eventually could be done away with altogether as connected vehicles communicate with each other and their environments.

Smart lighting will automatically turn on and off in response to the ambient light or when people are nearby, in smart buildings and smart cities alike. Smart lifts cluster passengers by floor destination to reduce travelling times and improve security. Smart security systems automatically alert to any abnormal activity. Smart factories are automated to improve efficiency and productivity of manufacturing and inventory systems. Smart grids provide remote and automatic sensors and control to deliver power more efficiently and reduce costs.

There are also numerous industry specific use cases for IoT. In agriculture, sensors can remotely monitor conditions such as soil moisture, crop growth and livestock feed levels, as well as keep track of the livestock itself. In retail, smart signage and mirrors are transforming our shopping experience.

The healthcare sector is ripe for innovation and a raft of connected devices are already available, such as monitors, medical implants and drug infusion pumps, that will lower healthcare costs at the same time as improving patient outcomes and the patient’s experience.

Is the IoT safe and secure?

Unfortunately not. An IoT device is, like any other, open to exploitation and attack, and the vast numbers of connected devices present more and more opportunities for hackers to find an entry point. Because IoT devices like cars, medical devices or power plants have the potential to kill, the potential damage from an attack could be catastrophic.

While manufacturers of ‘devices’ like cars have long taken security seriously, it was not given a high enough priority in many early consumer IoT devices as manufacturers rushed to get new products to market and the threat was underestimated. There have been  numerous large-scale cyber attacks that have highlighted the threat and brought security into the public mindset, but despite the growing awareness the number of attacks is on the rise and the attacks themselves are getting bigger.

Two massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks were launched in September and October 2016, by conscripting hacked IoT devices into a botnet army. The devices were largely low-cost home security cameras and DVRs which had been shipped with default passwords which either couldn’t be, or hadn’t been, changed. In late 2017, Huawei home routers were used to spread a variant of the Mirai malware, with attacks continuing into 2018 using other routers and IoT devices.

In September 2018, NexusGuard said the number of DDoS attacks in the second quarter increased by 29% on 2017, while the average attack size increased by nearly 550%. This huge growth is attributed directly to unsecure IoT devices: attackers exploit vulnerabilities in the devices to rapidly build large botnets that can then be used to perform targeted attacks that are increasingly difficult to stop. And while manufacturers and users are more vigilant than before about insecure passwords, hackers are finding more complex ways to access the devices, often driven by the growing demand for DDoS-for-hire services.

The IoT also brings data privacy concerns given the large amounts of data that are collected, shared, analysed and stored. Governments worldwide are busy updating regulations to make them relevant in today’s every more connected world, and to provide for penalties for non-compliance. The UK adopted the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) when it came into force in May 2018, and will likely replicate the legislation into UK law after Brexit. In October 2018, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined Facebook £500,000 for failing to protect data on UK users that could have been used by Cambridge Analytica. This was the maximum allowable under previous legislation: had the failings occurred after the implementation of GDPR the fine could have been as high as £1.2 billion.

When will we see it happen?

The IoT is already here and it is here to stay. Increasing numbers and types of devices will be connected. But it will be years, if not decades, before the full potential of the IoT will be realised, and there are a number of possible bumps in the road ahead.

As discussed above, the IoT needs to be more secure before it can be fully trusted to deliver on its promises without impacting personal privacy or causing mass destruction. In business and industry, adoption is being hindered by issues around interoperability, the lack of standards, not being able to prove the business case, and not having the right in-house capabilities to be able to understand what IoT could do for the business, let alone implement an IoT solution and then exploit the data it creates. IoT is still very much in its infancy in this space.

Furthermore, current networks will not be able to handle the vast numbers of connections and data that will be transported. This is where 5G comes into the IoT as it will provide the data speeds and response times required for society to become more fully connected.

Sacha Kavanagh
About Sacha Kavanagh

Research Analyst/ Technical Writer

Sacha has more than 20 years’ experience researching and writing about enterprise tech, telecoms, data centres, cloud and IoT. She is a researcher, writer and analyst, and a regular contributor to 5G.co.uk writing guides and articles on all aspects of 5G.

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