Explained: The ABCs of the Internet of Things

What it is, how it works and why it may not succeed

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"Information about a power consumer's schedule can reveal intimate, personal details about their lives, such as their medical needs, interactions with others, and personal habits," warned the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in testimony in late 2013 at a Federal Trade Commission workshop. This is information that may be shared with third parties. At this same FTC workshop, another leading privacy group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, outlined its nightmare scenario.

Light sensors in a home can tell how often certain rooms are occupied, and temperature sensors may be able to tell when one bathes, exercises or leaves the house; microphones can easily pick up the content of conversations. The message is clear: Courts, regulators and lawmakers will be fighting over IoT privacy safeguards for years to come.

Will my smart washer attack me?

Security experts are worried that consumers won't be able to tell the difference between secure and insecure devices on their home network. It will be a threat to enterprise networks as well. These devices, many of which will be cheap and junky and made by who-knows-who overseas, may not have any security of their own.

Security researchers imagine problems, such as the connected toilet, demonstrated at a recent Black Hat conference, which flushed and closed its lid repeatedly. Hackers could create havoc by turning appliances and HVAC systems on and off. Baby monitors have been successfully taken over by outsiders. One advantage that IoT security may have is it's still in its early stages, and the security community has a chance to build IoT systems with a strong measure of protection. Cisco is fishing around for ideas. The company is running a contest (with a June 17 submission deadline) with $300,000 in prize money for ideas for securing the IoT.

When will the Internet of Things be ready for prime time?

Vendors will be sorting out the various protocols and technologies for years. Consumers are curious, perhaps, but sensors and hubs for the home aren't flying off the shelves. There are real IoT uses today, especially for home monitoring and security. For now, the big users of sensor networks and remote intelligence gathering are businesses and governments.

Governments are deploying sensors to alert them to failed street lights, leaks in water systems and full trash cans. Sensors will likely have a major role in traffic control, forest fire and landslide detection. Remote sensing is already mainstream in many industries, office buildings and in the energy supply.

It's the consumer applications that get the most attention because they involve almost every industry and platform: health systems, home energy use, hardware, home building, electronics and the entire category of wearables, including clothing. Even plumbers will have to be aware of the IoT because of connected shut-off valves. But no one is going to stand in line for the latest smart refrigerator. It isn't the next iPad. The IoT rollout will be slow and will occur over many years, as appliances are replaced and home electrical systems are upgraded with smart devices.

What's the worst case scenario?

That a true coordination between multiple devices never comes to pass. Vendors, initially, will build islands, closed IoT environments that only work with their products and those made by selected partners. Privacy protections may be treated loosely, with users forced to opt out if they don't want their home turned into a giant spy cam for marketers.

We haven't even mentioned things like Google Glass. Imagine a scenario where people agree to share live streams as part of a Neighborhood Block Watch. A surveillance state may arrive on a flood of good intentions. But the IoT has potential to make life more efficient, safer, healthier and environmentally friendly.

In particular, people who install solar energy systems and use net metering, essentially selling surplus energy back to the utility, will have powerful reasons to install aware and connected systems. But whether these systems can work together will depend on the willingness of vendors to make their products connectable. There is no vendor large enough to control the IoT, but there are vendors large enough to make a mess of it.

This article, The ABCs of the Internet of Things , was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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