What is the internet of things (IoT)?
Since the coining of the term in 1999, the internet of things (IoT) has transformed from a mere vision to a palpable reality. This can be attributed to the extensive use of the Internet Protocol (IP), the rise of ubiquitous computing, and the continued advancement of data analytics, among other drivers of development. By 2020, it is estimated that there will be 20.4 billion devices connected to the IoT. Despite its continuing expansion, however, the IoT remains to some degree an obscure concept, something that’s often referred to in abstract terms even as it provides manifest benefits.
The IoT can be described as an extension of the internet and other network connections to different sensors and devices — or “things” — affording even simple objects, such as lightbulbs, locks, and vents, a higher degree of computing and analytical capabilities.
Interoperability is one of the key aspects of the IoT that contribute to its growing popularity. Connected or “smart” devices — as “things” in the IoT are often called — have the ability to gather and share data from their environments with other devices and networks. Through the analysis and processing of the data, devices can perform their functions with little or no need for human interaction.
Given the ever-increasing number of connected devices, the IoT continues its path of evolution, adding different layers to the data that is already being shared and processed, and giving rise to sophisticated algorithms that result in improved levels of automation. And because of the variety of “things” that can be connected to it, the IoT has enabled diverse applications for individual users and entire industries alike.
How does the IoT work?
The “things” that make up the IoT can be anything from a wearable fitness trackers to an autonomous vehicle. No matter what function they serve for users, these devices must have the following components for them to properly operate as parts of their respective IoT systems.
Sensors. Data is first collected from the environment for the IoT system to begin processing. It is collected by sensors in devices that can measure observable occurrences or changes in the environment. The kind of data being measured by the device depends on its function: It can be a person’s pulse in the case of a fitness tracker or the distance of the nearest object in that of an autonomous vehicle.
Connection and identification. The data must be communicated from the device to the rest of the IoT system, be it to a computer or to another device. And for this communication to have any meaning, a device must have a unique identifiable presence on the internet, accomplished through its own IP address.
Actuators. Most IoT devices are capable of doing their primary functions without physical interaction with their users. IoT devices should be able to take action based on data from their sensors and the subsequent feedback from the network. A smart lightbulb, for example, can turn on upon the command of its user, even when the user is miles away. In the same manner, a valve in a smart factory can automatically open or close according to data gathered by its sensors along the production line.
Even though the devices are usually built with automation in mind, other technologies must be in place for IoT systems to work. Completing the links of how IoT systems process data are the following components.
IoT gateway. The IoT gateway acts as a bridge for the different devices’ data to reach the cloud. It also helps in translating the different protocols of the various IoT devices into just one standard protocol and in filtering out unnecessary data gathered by the devices.
The cloud. The cloud is where all the data from the different devices is gathered and where software can reach this data for processing. Because most of data processing happens in the cloud, it lessens the burden on individual devices.
User interface. The user interface communicates to the users the data gathered by the devices and allows the users to make the necessary commands to be executed by the devices.
The Internet Architecture Board released a guiding document that outlines the four communication channels used by the IoT. The four models also demonstrate how the connectivity of IoT devices helps extend the value of each device and adds quality to the overall user experience:
Device-to-Device. This model represents how two or more devices connect and communicate directly with one another. Communication between devices is usually achieved through protocols such as Bluetooth, Z-Wave and Zigbee. This model is often found in in wearables and in home automation devices, where small packets of data are communicated from one device to another, as with a door lock to a lightbulb.
Device-to-Cloud. Many IoT devices connect to the cloud, often with the use of wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Connecting to the cloud allows users and related applications to access the devices, making it possible to course through commands remotely as well as push necessary updates to the device software. Through this connection, the devices can also collect user data for the improvement of their service providers.
Device-to-Gateway. Before connecting to the cloud, IoT devices can communicate first with an intermediary gateway device. The gateway can translate protocols and add an additional layer of security for the entire IoT system. In the case of a smart home, for example, all smart devices can be connected to a hub (the gateway) that helps the different devices to work together despite having different connection protocols.
Back-End Data-Sharing. An extension of the device-to-cloud model, this model allows users to gain access to and analyze a collection of data from different smart devices. A company, for instance, can use this model to access information from all of the devices working inside the company building as organized together in the cloud. This model also helps lessen issues with data portability.
What are the applications of the IoT?
Just as the internet at large affects a broad spectrum of users, so does the IoT. Depending on the scale of connectivity and the number of devices involved, the IoT can have significant and specific applications, be they for a single user or for an entire city. Common applications of the IoT include the following.
People and homes. People make direct use of IoT devices through technology that can be worn, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers, and devices that help make receiving and collecting information possible in real time. Applied to households, IoT devices can be used for a more connected, energy-efficient, and conveniently run home. Different aspects of a connected home can also be remotely accessed and controlled by home owners through a computer or a handheld smart device.
Automobiles. Sensors within a moving vehicle make it possible to collect real-time data about the vehicle and its surroundings. Autonomous vehicles use different sensors in combination with advanced control systems to assess their environments and consequently drive themselves.
Factories. With the application of IoT in factories, manufacturers can automate repetitive tasks as well as access information on any part of the entire manufacturing process. Information provided by sensors on factory machineries can help in devising ways to make the entire production line more efficient and less accident-prone.
Businesses. On a larger scale, with the adoption of IoT technologies, businesses can be more cost-effective, efficient, and productive. For example, office buildings can be fitted with sensors that can monitor elevator traffic or overall energy consumption. Different industries naturally have different applications of the IoT: In the healthcare industry, IoT devices may be used to gain instant and accurate updates about the condition of patients, while in the retail industry, IoT devices may be deployed to help shoppers locate products and to monitor inventory.
Cities. The combined uses of different IoT devices can cover urban and public areas. IoT devices can gather data from and affect its environment to help manage the various aspects of city governance, such as traffic control, resource management, and public safety.
What are the current issues with the IoT?
The IoT is a relatively new, developing technology. As such, it’s subject to certain significant issues, especially with more devices predicted to go online in the coming years. The following are several aspects where the IoT continues to face some issues.
Standards and Regulations
While it broadens the scope of applications, the growing number of connected devices makes the standardization and regulation of the IoT a complicated and nettlesome affair. Standardization and regulation issues can range from technical problems to legal matters. Fragmentation, for example, is a technical problem faced by users because of the lack in IoT standards. Different smart devices may use various wireless communication protocols like Blutooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and 5G, hindering communication within IoT systems. On the other hand, lack of regulation highlights existing internet-related issues, as well as adding another layer of complexity to these issues. Determining accountability is one example: Should there be defects and breaches related to IoT device usage, lack of regulation leaves accountability difficult to determine. Standards and regulations affect the overall quality of services that IoT technologies render, and therefore concern all IoT stakeholders, be they individual users, device manufacturers, or organizations integrating the technologies into their processes.
Privacy awareness has grown with the increase in diversity of shared personal information over the internet. The IoT further complicates this issue as it expands the types of data being recorded and shared over the internet. Since the IoT works better by getting as detailed a view of environments as possible, it presents a trade-off between user privacy and quality of service. Determining the points where data collection should be limited, or even stopping the collection of data altogether on account of user privacy concerns, is also difficult to achieve, especially with the automated nature of most IoT systems.
Security concerns will always be present when handling of data and information is involved. The IoT adds its own security challenges with its access to a wide variety of personal information and its close integration into individual and organizational activities. These characteristics of the IoT make the technology a viable target for cybercriminals. In addition, any breach, attack, and vulnerability with a single IoT device or system weakens the overall security of the networks concerned.
Other security threats related to IoT technologies include the following.
- The homogeneity of mass-produced smart devices means the proliferation of the same possible vulnerabilities.
- The automation of IoT systems makes it more difficult to detect vulnerabilities and breaches because of the reduced need for human interference.
- Environments in which IoT devices are deployed make these devices vulnerable to unforeseen physical threats where attackers may tamper with devices directly.
- The interconnectivity of IoT systems makes every part of the system an avenue for data breaches and cyberattacks, which can spread to the rest of the affected networks.
How can the use of the IoT be secured?
Different security practices may apply for the different types of IoT devices and systems. However, securing the IoT while also maintaining its relevance is the shared responsibility of its key players — from IoT manufacturers to end users.
Strong security features can be integrated from the design phase by manufacturers, while service providers can make sure that security is sustained by pushing updates and patches when necessary. Users like organizations that apply smart devices in their businesses can continually monitor all their devices, not depending completely on IoT automation. Adequate cybersecurity solutions can add multiple layers of defense against unforeseen risks for all of the stakeholders.
The security responsibilities of each of those involved in the IoT do not exist in a vacuum. Taking a collaborative view on the safety of the IoT does not only protect things like personal and company assets, but also has an extended effect of making the connected world more protected.
Visit the Trend Micro’s IoT page for more details on the IoT, guidance on how to secure different IoT applications, and other related cybersecurity solutions.