Remember, back in the day, when we thought the smartphone was the ultimate in connectivity? At last, we were “unchained from our desks,” armed with a portable email inbox, calendar and a boatload of apps to make our personal and business lives better. Of course, we still had to wake up for that early morning meeting, make our own coffee and calculate our commute time based on the sage advice of our favorite media outlet’s traffic reporter.
Pretty soon, all of that will seem like living in the Stone Age.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is dramatically redefining the concept of connectivity; inextricably fusing our physical and digital worlds. It’s integrating technology with our daily lives and hurling the concept of machine-to-machine data transfer to a whole new level—one that could change the way we live, work and function in the world.
But, what exactly is the Internet of Things?
“The Internet of Things connects intelligent devices that have their own IP addresses, sensors or other unique identifiers—just like smartphones and PCs—so they can automatically transfer data over a network without human interaction,” explained Chris Fleck, vice president of Mobility Solutions at Citrix. “These devices can include things like cameras, televisions, cars, appliances, meters—or an implanted heart monitor—almost anything that’s usefulness could benefit from interaction and programmability.”
IoT gives a physical object a virtual presence and the ability to gather and exchange contextual information.
So at home, your machines transform into your personal valets. Your coffee maker, which is synced with your clock and calendar, starts brewing five minutes before your alarm. Your refrigerator keeps track of the staples and automatically populates your shopping list, or orders the items itself, before you completely run out. Your vehicle chooses the fastest route, based on traffic patterns, and alerts your thermostat to raise the temperature as you’re heading back home. If it’s your evening to work out, your progress is charted and transmitted from your wrist to your personal trainer’s logbook: how far you ran, what your heart rate was, or if you decided to skip the whole thing all together and call out for pizza instead.
Intriguing? Yes. Scary? A little. Excessive? Well, remember, we’re a culture of remote controls (saving us the agony of that 12-foot walk to change the channel), clap-on lights and microwave popcorn. Adjusting to convenience has never been a problem.
The Business Benefits of IoT
This is not to say that the Internet of Things is limited to our own personal enjoyment. This technology has myriad applications for business and government agencies, with the potential to help them overcome some of their greatest challenges.
“Businesses could control the security in buildings more efficiently using smartphones and image recognition for building entry,” Fleck said. “These can be tied into lighting, heating and cooling systems that turn off lights when natural light is available or when workstations are empty.”
That alone is a big deal.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, commercial buildings account for nearly 20 percent of U.S. energy consumption. Yet studies have shown that continuously monitoring and adjusting operations and implementing a small number of energy-efficiency strategies could reduce that energy use by as much as 30 percent. Think about the impact of that happening automatically.
Health care is another huge area of opportunity, particularly in the discipline of chronic disease management. Instead of only monitoring of weight, blood pressure, heart rhythm and other vitals during periodic doctor visits, patients with heart disease can be fitted with sensors that monitor this information continuously, feeding a stream of data back to the doctor’s office. Companies are already working on pills that contain tiny sensors to monitor the digestive system and organ health. A pharmaceutical company is currently working on a program that implants every pill with a tiny sensor that relays, through its digital health feedback system, information about a patient’s medication-taking behaviors and how his or her body is responding to treatment.
And this is only the beginning.
Utilities could embed sensors in water lines to detect leaks. Cities could monitor the entire eco-system; scheduling garbage collection when bins are near full; gauge the structural soundness of bridges without physical testing and obtain real-time readouts of which street lights are out, traffic lights malfunctioning and parking meters broken.
Even the agricultural industry could benefit. A Dutch start-up company already created a sensor implant for livestock that can measure a cow’s vital signs. That information is transferred back via server to the cattle farmers, who can quickly respond when an animal is sick—before it infects the entire herd.
Great stuff, but how can all of this happen so quickly? The Internet of Things seems to defy the traditional technological cycle.
“The availability of low-cost, low-energy-consumption embeddable processors make it affordable to create new devices that connect to the Internet,” Fleck said. “And companies see the opportunities. They can afford to connect almost anything.”
The price is right, and companies are jumping on the innovation bandwagon.
The Massive Security Challenge
Of course, with innovation, there is always risk—and the IoT brings its share.
“Data privacy is a huge issue already. With more connected devices, there are more opportunities to compromise those systems,” Fleck said. “For example, a criminal could hack into security systems and automate the cameras to look inside the building or people’s houses. If the cameras were installed in the default setting, with no password, and all the necessary security precautions weren’t taken, and the hacker had any degree of sophistication, this wouldn’t be an unlikely scenario.”
You don’t have to have a writer’s imagination to think of a laundry list of more. Someone could compromise medical devices and steal proprietary patient data. A disgruntled employee could theoretically take control of the CEO’s connected car. Industrial espionage. Terrorism. Manipulating data into something that causes collision or some other form of disaster.
So, is the whole thing really worth it? Fleck says, “yes.”
“Any initiative has to involve the IT security organization and potentially, outside security partners. They have to be involved from the onset, no matter how seemingly innocuous that initiative might seem,” Fleck said. “You have to leverage capabilities and engage the people with the right skills who could look for, and deter, any potential threat.”
With everything so intertwined, everything becomes a little more complicated.
“If someone hacks into a refrigerator, it stops working and the food spoils; that’s one thing. But, if the hacker gets access to unlock the automated front door lock, that’s a real problem,” Fleck said. “To create a deterrent, you have to understand all the potential security risks and build around those.”
Fleck believes that manufacturers will also do what they can to reduce vulnerabilities.
“Car manufacturers, for example, separate the ‘connected’ side of the vehicle from the ‘mechanical’ side, which builds in some protections,” he said. “But, that’s not to say that the exposure isn’t there. It most definitely is.”
The best approach? Proceed with caution.
“Companies and organizations should explore ways to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by the Internet of Things, but do it with eyes wide open. Embrace the initiative, but also have a strong security plan in place,” Fleck said.
No question, “Things” are about to get interesting.