What is IoT? The internet of things explained

The internet of things (IoT) is a network of connected smart devices providing rich data, but it can also be a security nightmare.

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Industrial IoT

The IIoT is a specific subset of the Internet of Things made up of connected sensors and instrumentation for machinery in the transport, energy, and industrial sectors. The IIoT includes some of the most well-established sectors of the IoT market, including the descendants of some devices that predate the IoT moniker. IIoT devices are often longer-lived than most IoT endpoints – some remain in service for a decade or more – and as a result may use legacy, proprietary protocols and standards that make it difficult to move to modern platforms. (Related story: What is the industrial internet of things?)

Consumer IoT

The move of IoT devices into consumer spaces is more recent but much more visible to ordinary people. Connected devices range from fitness wearables that track our movements to internet-enabled thermometers (Related story: IoT offers a way to track COVID-19 via connected thermometers). Probably the most prominent IoT product category is the home assistant, such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home.

Smart homes

Consumers can connect to so-called smart-home offerings, providing climate and lighting control and security services. Some of the most popular products are Amazon's Ring camera, which can connect your home with local law enforcement, and the Google Nest smart thermostat. The smart home market is expected to grow to nearly $60 billion this year.

IoT and smart cities

Smart cities promise to transform how individual citizens interact with the urban environment. Smart city tech is still embryonic, but in theory will eventually help manage traffic, public transit, utilities, safety, and more. But because the stakes here are so high, improvements in security are a must before widespread adoption is possible. (Related story: Smart-city IoT isn’t smart enough yet)

Security and vulnerabilities

IoT devices have earned a bad reputation when it comes to security. PCs and smartphones are "general use" computers designed to last for years, with complex, user-friendly OSes that now have automated patching and security features built in.

IoT devices, by contrast, are often basic gadgets with stripped-down OSes. They are designed for individual tasks and minimal human interaction, and cannot be patched, monitored or updated. Because many IoT devices are ultimately running a version of Linux under the hood with various network ports available, they make tempting targets for hackers. Perhaps nothing demonstrated this more than the Mirai botnet, which was created by a teenager telnetting into home security cameras and baby monitors that had easy-to-guess default passwords, and which ended up launching one of history's largest DDoS attacks.

While this situation is improving somewhat, the truth is that IoT transactions are by and large still not secure. Enterprise IoT customers can work to improve their IoT security, but vendors need to make IoT devices more secure and easier to keep secure if they're going to be in the field for any length of time. (Related story: 7 steps to enhance IoT security)

Privacy and IoT

No one wants a hacker snooping on private data. But what if it's the company that sold the gadget that's doing the spying? Take, for instance, home digital assistants. Recode has a pretty good breakdown on what Amazon and Google can learn about a person from connected devices. You're probably not that worried about Amazon learning when you turn your lights on and off, but remember, every bit of information goes into a data lake that can help companies produce a surprisingly complete picture of your life.

The ability of IoT devices to track a user's location is a particular privacy concern. Consider the map of spring breakers potentially carrying coronavirus home, for instance. Location data is in theory anonymized, but The New York Times put together an extensive report showing how, for instance, the data could be used to track the movements of individuals who could later be identified by name. Another incident crossed the line into a failure in operational security: the Strava heat map, which shows popular running routes for Fitbit users around the world, accidentally revealed several secret American military bases.

What's next?

Perhaps the best way to describe IoT today is that it's in its awkward teenage years: Big enough to be important, and getting bigger every day, but still immature in many ways. In the short term, we'll hopefully see improved security, more innovation in edge computing tech, and greater collaboration between IT and OT.

What's further out on the horizon? As the first generation of IoT projects, which mostly came from smaller specialized companies, ages out of use, we might see new rollouts more dominated by industry giants like Google or Amazon, based on more open standards. The big cellular carriers may also gain a foothold. Perhaps IoT devices will become so omnipresent that a wireless network can essentially be treated as a giant sensor. It will be an exciting technology to watch.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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