You’ve utilized the Internet of Things (IoT), even if you didn’t know. Your phone probably woke you up with an alarm this morning, for example. Your Apple watch or Fitbit might be reminding you to get your steps in. Even your thermostat might be turning the heat down because it knows you’re not home during the day.

All these are examples of items that are members of the Internet of Things, a collection of sensors and machines that integrate with each other and the internet to makes our lives easier, more comfortable, or simpler. Many worry, however, that all this newfound connectivity comes with a price: security and our safety.

The Internet of What, Exactly?

Admittedly, it can feel like a difficult concept to wrap your head around just because it’s so broad. IoT refers to essentially anything that connects to the internet, including your phone, coffeemaker, laptop, and even sensors embedded in the smart concrete on bridges and roads that notify overseers of potential stress fractures or ruptures.

Despite the fact that just ten years ago there were more devices and machines connected to the internet than there were people in the world and that by 2020 we expect to see more than 26 billion devices connected to the internet, most people (87%, in fact) have never heard of the phrase “Internet of Things.”

More often than not, if something is an IoT member, it’s called “smart.” Thus, we have smart cars, smart thermostats, and even smart light bulbs. Essentially, the IoT combines sensors with machines, but it doesn’t stop there. How the collected data is applied is what makes the IoT useful.

Useful it is. Thanks to internet that’s more available and less expensive than ever, technology that’s evolving at a faster and faster pace, and the falling prices of technology such as sensors, it’s not difficult to see what the Internet of Things is so common–and why it will be everywhere before the next decade is out.

The Genius is in the Application

What does this mean for us? For starters, the Internet of Things is finding more and more ways to help us out where we spend most of our time–the home.

Smart Homes

Internet of Things (IoT)

Smart homes include all manner of technology and for the ultra-rich (like Bill Gates, who was reported to spend $100 million on his smart home before smart homes were a “thing”), it’s built just for you.

For the rest of us, established brands and new startups now offer a variety of products that connect our everyday home objects, such as light bulbs, locks, and thermostats, with each other and the internet.

These enlightened devices save homeowners money, provide extra layers of security (don’t you hate it when you get to work and can’t remember if you locked the front door?), and make homes more comfortable and convenient.

One example–the smart light bulb–has been popularized by giants like Phillips and Ikea. Phillips, in fact, now has a whole line of lighting called the Hue. After a simple installation of the bridge, which works similar to a wireless router, and a download of the Hue app, you’ll be able to control lights in your home.

Using Hue’s traditional LED bulbs or its lamp-like stand-alone lights, you can dim the lighting in certain rooms, change light colors, create moods (such as tropical vacation), or even create lighting schedules based on your normal habits all from the app on your phone.

Another device that connects to your phone is the smart lock. There is a variety available, but most enable you to provide temporary logins to, say, the housekeeper, or the repair guy, as well as let you lock or unlock your door remotely. Plus, most will keep a record of locking and unlocking.

Smart thermostats are another popular smart home feature in the Internet of Things, and can even save you money.

Car Connection

Our homes aren’t the only things getting smarter–our cars are coming online, as well. Cars already have computers inside that help control things like the anti-lock brakes and alert you when there’s engine trouble, but new smart cars can do a whole lot more with their computers.

Drivers can stream their favorite internet-based music service without touching their phones, they can use their car connection to sync to their calendar and perform other internet-related tasks, and can use their smart car to do things like finding the nearest gas station.

Some experts posit that smart cars will help consumers crossover into electric or alternative-fuel vehicles from gas-powered engines since smart cars will up the comfort and enjoyment factor exponentially. In the future, these experts expect that the IoT will have radically redefined transportation, including how we live and work, thanks to self-driving cars.

While millions of self-driving test miles have already been logged by industry leaders like Uber and Waymo (Google’s self-driving division), the technology still needs to mature before it can be fully utilized by consumers. The future is near, however!

Industrial Internet of Things

The industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) refers to the sensors and machines that connect to the internet and operate behind the scenes, in farm equipment, factories, and logistics systems. These industrial IoT applications are growing in their impact on productivity and efficiency, raising the quality of life for the people working in these industries and consumers.

One example is a power company that saved half a million by using IIoT technology that helped it improve reliability in its assets, plants, and fleets. Another power customer can keep outages at a low and increase days online thanks to IIoT integrating its systems with internet connectivity.

Of course, it’s GE software leveraging the collected data that’s made the difference, by GE isn’t the only company in the IIoT world.

Smart City

One of the things that IoT proponents get most excited about is the future smart city. Experts see smart cities that efficiently handle traffic, power, waste, and more to be safe, environmentally-friendly, and more comfortable for its citizens. This includes smart traffic lights, smart power grids, and much more.

Cities that have today implemented smart technology include Barcelona, Amsterdam, Stockholm, New York, and Dubai. While we tend to think of fully integrated, brand-new cities when we think of smart cities, many cities can also implement smart technology in smaller, less invasive ways.

One smart city technology, ShotSpotter, is an example. ShotSpotter is a system of acoustic microphones set up in secret locations around a city. The microphones are connected to the city police department’s network and also connect with cameras. When a shot is fired, the microphones can triangulate and locate the sound, enabling first responders to accurately engage suspects.

Plus, cameras immediately turn on and point in the direction of the shots, enabling better capture and conviction of criminals. Minneapolis, Minnesota has already implemented ShotSpotter in several parts of the city and credits it with helping to reduce the city’s rising crime rates.

IoT Security Concerns

One of the most pervasive–and perhaps valid–concerns about the Internet of Things is security. If a device can be used remotely by you, it can also be used remotely by someone else. We picture our smart cars driving off cliffs with us in them, our Google devices taking over our houses and other nightmare scenarios!

As it turns out, however, some of our concerns might be valid. Security experts are concerned that since devices (including routers) are widespread and poorly protected, hackers are easily able to exploit weaknesses. Not only this, but hackers can cover their tracks, making them very difficult to find.

What does all this mean for the average person? It means that technology security can’t just be somebody else’s responsibility. Consumers and government citizens must educate themselves and be vocal about the need for enhanced security.

It’s not enough for there to just be standards and protocols for security–manufacturers, who typically use proprietary coding and, if not specifically focused on security, often leave their devices vulnerable, must be held to account.

Is it Safe?

We’ve seen governments fall prey to hackers, but we’ve yet to see pervasive examples of IoT security breaches like we ones we envisioned above. Is that coming? It’s hard to tell. What is clear is that security must become as robust and forward-thinking as the technology it’s protecting.

Only then can we enjoy true security in the IoT era.

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