An introduction to the Internet of Things.
IoT stands for “Internet of Things” and is a computer science concept describing the connectivity and networking attributes of things, such as household items and everyday objects. To some extent, “smart houses” and connected devices make our lives easier, but criticism rises around IoT and the cybersecurity and privacy issues it can bring. Let’s try to understand what’s at stake here.
Internet shapes our lives
The Revolution brought by the Internet of People
IoT is called this way in opposition to the Internet of People, which designates the Internet we use on our computers, to communicate with other people across the world. Internet is the short for Interconnected Network and uses the Internet Protocol Suite to connect computers and devices together. The Internet is a wireless network that can be seen as a gathering of billions of smaller networks, which are wireless or not.
The Internet of People has changed a lot of our habits. With globalization, we travel further and our need for a wide-range communication network has increased. Today, we can video-chat with our loved ones timezones away, as if they were right here with us. Companies can have offices spread across all continents and still be able to exchange business strategies in real time. There’s no need for wires and physical connectivity anymore and it makes communication easier and faster than it ever was! It makes things so easy for us that most of people and businesses couldn’t imagine their life without Internet. We have learnt how to depend on it for all the things we do and how we do them.
The last few years we have seen a new Internet emerge and take place into our daily lives: the Internet of Things. This type of Internet doesn’t connect people, it connects things together and allow objects to sense, analyze and send data.
A typical day with connected devices
Most people that live in the Silicon Valley have the privilege to live in smart houses, and will recognize themselves in the next few lines.
We wear bracelets that collect information about our pulse, our sleep cycles and other health-related data. Those bracelets are able to wake us up at an optimal moment in the morning. Once we’re up, our bracelet will communicate with the thermostat that in turn will turn up the temperature in the house to make our morning routine more comfortable. Even more than that, the thermostat is also able to learn from our routine and predict when it’s going to need to turn the temperature up or down, thanks to Machine Learning. After getting up, our first words of the day are often “Ok Google” or “Alexa”, and they are directed to our connected vocal assistants. We can ask this digital assistant what’s the weather like today, or how many meetings we have on our schedule, and the assistant will be able to answer those questions thanks to its access to Internet and our Google or Amazon account. This scenario looks futuristic, and yet it is only a short excerpt of what our lives may look like now.
IoT can make our life easier, but also changes our habits, just like the Internet of People. And the beautiful part is that it’s only the beginning, and a lot of promising innovations arrive on the market (and in our lives) everyday.
So how does IoT work?
The “things” we talk about when we say IoT are objects that are able to connect to other objects, to form a network. Generally, it’s a wireless network, and these objects are able to receive and send data thanks to a unique IP (Internet Protocol) address, that identifies them in the network. In a house, all connected devices are most pf the time linked to a WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network). This WLAN is connected to the Internet by our Internet Service Provider (ISP), our “Wi-Fi”. In some buildings, our Wi-Fi provider is connected with other network providers in a WAN (Wide Area Network), and this WAN is connected to the Internet. But what kind of data do these objects need to send?
Those devices have embedded processors, sensors and hardware that are able to collect data and send it to other devices over the network. For example: our thermostat is able to sense the temperature thanks to sensors, and is able to communicate that temperature to an app we have on our smartphone thanks to embedded hardware.
On top of that, our devices are able to receive data. With that same thermostat app we can change the temperature setting from our smartphone, without even having to be in the house. That’s because the thermostat and the smartphone are both connected to the Internet!
For the most part, the usage of IoT devices is pretty simple and limited to one unique function (i.e. make coffee, open the door, adjust the temperature). But as technologies become more and more advanced, we are able to incorporate more sophisticated programs into our connected objects. For example, some objects use Machine Learning algorithms to be able to predict behaviors. They learn from the repeated usage of the device, and are able to act on that information. Back to our thermostat example: over time, it will get acquainted with our habits thanks to its sensors. If it’s able to sense movement, it will be able to know when we’re home and when we’re not, and then will be able to heat the house just when we need it. This is revolutionary in so many ways: it saves energy and is environment friendly, and it saves times for us!
IoT is the new Revolution
Connected objects are changing our habits, and they’re a big part of the great technological revolution we’re experiencing. There are more devices connected to the Internet than people! That may sound scary, but it makes sense knowing that more than half of the world population doesn’t have access to the Internet. So as revolutionary as IoT is, let’s not forget its users are privileged and that it’s still a luxury for the biggest part of the population.
The benefits of that revolution could actually benefit a lot more people than people with smart homes. In the case of medical devices, the data collected from a big number of people could make a big difference in medical research. It could also allow healthcare professionals to detect early signs of serious diseases, like heart failures or cancer, and save more lives. The potential of connected devices is beautiful, and it’s up to us to steer IoT towards a net benefit for society as a whole.
More comfort and knowledge, but at what price?
Internet of Things has clearly brought some good into our lives, and has great potential. But it suffers from a lot of criticism and skepticism, especially regarding users’ privacy and cybersecurity. When connected devices send data to a corresponding app, we don’t know for sure how the app owners treat the data and what they do with it. Some laws protect users from the use of their data, but what does it protect us and how companies apply those laws is blurry for most people. For example, do we really want an app to know all about our habits and at what time we’re not home? In the case of vocal assistants, their sensors are always listening and just waiting for a specific cue to start recording and processing our voice. But it is often ignored that our recorded voice is stored in the assistant’s program and may be used for diverse purposes. Some people are just not comfortable with the fact that big companies own recordings of their voice, among other things, and it’s a justified feeling.
The other issue that IoT can raise is cybersecurity flaws. Like any device that is connected to a network, a connected object is hackable. That means that malicious programs could arrive on the device and corrupt it. For example: steal our data, or open a smart door lock. We can remember that scene in Mr. Robot (spoiler alert) where Eliott’s team hack into an Ecorp’s executive house and are able to pick its smart lock and enter. This is an extreme example and it’s only fiction, but technically it’s doable. Especially if the smart lock’s program is easy to penetrate.
Those concerns are why IoT companies have to make cybersecurity a high priority, as well as being transparent about data collection and usage. And that makes that revolution an even bigger challenge for companies and governments. What regulations do we need to protect users and create safe connected devices? How do we enforce those regulations in such a fast-moving industry?
The Internet of Things has great potential in bettering people’s life, and has already begun doing it. Just like any other technological revolution before it, IoT has its own downsides. But thinking about other connected devices that have undoubtedly become a part of our life, like smartphones, a lot of people don’t ask themselves where their data goes and how companies use them, even if the challenge is the same.