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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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)

Companies continue to expand on their security options for IoT devices. For example, Microsoft recently announced its Edge Secured-core program for Windows-based IoT devices. The program aims to address issues such as device identity, secure boot, operating system hardening, device updates, data protection, and vulnerability disclosures.

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.

History of IoT

A world of omnipresent connected devices and sensors is one of the oldest tropes of science fiction. IoT lore has dubbed a vending machine at Carnegie Mellon University that was connected to ARPANET in 1970 as the first Internet of Things device, and many technologies have been touted as enabling "smart" IoT-style characteristics to give them a futuristic sheen. But the term Internet of Things was coined in 1999 by British technologist Kevin Ashton.

At first, the technology lagged behind the vision. Every internet-connected thing needed a processor and a means to communicate with other things, preferably wirelessly, and those factors imposed costs and power requirements that made widespread IoT rollouts impractical, at least until Moore's Law caught up in the mid-2000s.

One important milestone was widespread adoption of RFID tags, cheap minimalist transponders that can stick to any object to connect it to the larger internet world. Omnipresent Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G wireless networks make it possible for designers to simply assume wireless connectivity anywhere. And the rollout of IPv6 means that connecting billions of gadgets to the internet won't exhaust the store of IP addresses, which was a real concern. (Related story: Can IoT networking drive adoption of IPv6?)

What's next for IoT?

As the number of IoT devices continue to grow, companies will continue to improve security features and look to faster connectivity options, such as 5G and faster Wi-Fi, to enable more functionality for getting the data processed and analyzed. Additional collaboration between IT and operational technology (OT) is also expected.

IoT will continue to grow as smaller companies get in on the action, and larger enterprises and industry giants such as Google and Amazon continue to embrace IoT infrastructures. Perhaps IoT devices will become so omnipresent that a wireless network can essentially be treated as a giant sensor. The technology continues to be exciting to watch.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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