The Internet of Things: Practical vs. Peripheral

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Is the Internet of Things everything it's cracked up to be?The term “Internet of Things” (or IoT for short) is an overused technology buzzword that, for many, most often provokes the question: “What does that even mean?” The general definition is that the Internet of Things refers to ordinary physical objects that have network and perhaps internet connectivity, and that use sensors to detect and share data.

The history of IoT is a long, tangled one, but the Carnegie Mellon Coke Machine of 1982 is considered by many to be the first example of an IoT technology. This particular appliance used many internal sensors to inventory beverages, sales, temperature, and other metadata, reporting these statistics both to prospective customers as well as engineers located elsewhere in the building.

I’d like to lead our discussion by describing some of the most popular IoT implementations and what makes them so appealing and helpful. Then we’ll consider some of the trade-offs and potential downsides to the technology.

Personal Transportation

It seems to me that most current-generation automobiles, from economy to luxury, are IoT-enabled in one way or another. For instance, consider my car, a 2016 Mercedes-Benz C-300. Admittedly, this is a high-end car — but check out some of its standard IoT abilities:

● Ability to locate the car, start it, and adjust the internal climate from my smartphone
● Ability to fetch the weather forecast, road/traffic conditions, and even news headlines from the GPS display
● Ability to obtain detailed vehicle status, including fluid levels, tire pressure, and chassis integrity, directly from the vehicle

These features make use of industry standard protocols like Bluetooth and IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi, as well as Mercedes-Benz-proprietary protocols (I’ll have more to say about the open tech vs. proprietary IoT debate later).

The bottom line is that the “connected” vehicle makes for a safer and more enjoyable transportation experience for many people, including yours truly.

The Smart Home

I suppose I’ll continue to use myself as a case study: In our home, we use ADT for home security and home automation. Once again, we have a mixture of industry standard and proprietary hardware and software at play. The net deliverables of our home automation solution is being able to:

● Control lights, thermostat, door locks, garage door, all from a smartphone
● View security camera feeds from anywhere in the world
● Proactively receive alerts when appliances exceed threshold values (for example, if the refrigerator temperature exceeds 37 degrees Fahrenheit)

Once again, at home we use IoT to make life easier, increase security, and reduce household costs in the long run through proactive alerting.

Civic Infrastructure

The Libelium Top 50 is a nice round-up of the most popular IoT implementations. Some of the particularly interesting entries related to city life include the following:

Smart parking: Parking space monitoring to make it easier for you to find an open space
Smart lighting: Street lights turn on and off and adjust their brightness depending on weather or other conditions
Earthquake early detection: Proactive notification based on ground sensor data
River chemical leakage detection: Early warning system to detect pollution

Do you see a trend here? In IoT, participating hardware uses sensors to make regular readings of particular conditions. At regular intervals the device shares its readings with other peer devices and/or a central controller. The controller, which is typically a public cloud service reachable via the Internet, can instruct the IoT device to take action automatically based on threshold values.

Education

Miniature personal computers such as the Raspberry Pi or microcontrollers like the Arduino bring IoT within the reach of middle school children. Not only do these “maker” platforms teach people how to program, they also inspire new ideas and foster the development of new and novel IoT devices.

For example, you can use Raspberry Pi along with some supplemental do-it-yourself (D-I-Y) hardware to create a wireless webcam that uploads pictures periodically to your web server for public and/or private display.

Certainly there are plenty of misguided IoT ideas; as is the case with technology, the proverbial cream tends to rise to the top. Check out the Internet of Useless Things for a humorous compendium of bad ideas.

I mean, just because you can create a 3D printer that uses Cheez-Whiz as ink doesn’t mean that you should do so. Let’s now consider some of the most commonly cited IoT trade-offs.

IoT Downside 1: Proprietary Protocols

Where you have vendors of closed-source products and technologies, you have potential issues with IoT implementation. My LG washer and dryer include many internal sensors that can help LG-authorized support technicians figure out what’s wrong with the device and issue a prompt fix. No other devices in my home can communicate with my washer and dryer, however, due to proprietary protocols.

I hope that the long game for IoT of all stripes is greater reliance on vendor-neutral technologies and an increased willingness for companies to “play nice” with each other.

Microsoft is a good example of this. Sure, their Windows operating system is proprietary and closed-source. Nevertheless, Windows 10 now includes a bash command shell environment made by Canonical, the creators of Ubuntu Linux. Imagine — open-source Linux code running from within Microsoft Windows!

The good news is at least at the network transport layer we have built-in vendor neutrality. Consider the TCP/IP protocol stack, Bluetooth, Infrared, and Wi-Fi: these protocols work on just about any network and/or Internet-connected device.

IoT Downside 2: Privacy Concerns

“Big data” and “data mining” are two other buzzwords that crop up in the tech news all the time. It’s a fact that it’s never been easier for businesses to (a) store and retrieve enormous volumes of user data; and (b) mine that data to suite whatever business objective they desire.

When you think of all the sensors and data transfers that take place in a connected home with a connected vehicle, how confident are you that your personally identifiable data (PID) is safe and secure? How susceptible are those transmissions to eavesdroppers?

Sadly, as of this writing, those are open questions (pun intended). It’s not simply the types and volume of data IoT devices gather, but the possibility that software bugs and/or hardware flaws can expose more data than the vendor planned for.

Your best bet is to (a) be aware of the IoT you have enabled in your life; and (b) stay current with industry news to be apprised when (not if) a breach or other inadvertent data exposure happens so you can learn what to do to remediate.

IoT Downside 3: Safety Worries

What’s most frightening to me as the driver of an IoT-connected vehicle is that idea that a malicious individual could remote-control my car and cause it to crash. That’s not science fiction stuff — remote systems hijacking is an attack type that happens every day.

Likewise, a vulnerability in our home’s ADT security system might make it possible for a malicious agent to (a) detect a flaw in our system; and (b) capitalize upon it to gain unauthorized entry when we’re away.

Intentional Obsolescence

An IoT dust-up occurred a few years ago when Nest Labs purchased Revolv, the manufacturer of a smart thermostat. What was the trouble? Revolv customers who purchased a “lifetime subscription” to the service were left out in the cold (pun intended) when Nest decommissioned and shut down the Revolv servers.

This is the kind of thing that happens in the fast-moving technology market all the time. The lesson here is to have long-range vision, but a short-term pocketbook.

Wrap-up

Is the Internet of Things everything it's cracked up to be?If some or all of the IoT downsides I identified get to you, then you have the option to “consciously unplug” to the degree that you regain your comfortability. You can choose not to purchase obvious IoT solutions, and you can disable network connectivity for most other applications.

On the other hand, perhaps you’re excited at the convenience and, ironically, security that IoT can bring you in your personal or professional life. I have a feeling that we are currently in the “growing pains” or “learning curve” part of IoT’s lifecycle. Our great-grandkids are going to look back on this and chuckle, no doubt.

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Timothy Warner

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Timothy L. Warner is an IT professional and technical trainer based in Nashville, Tenn. A computer enthusiast who authored his first BASIC program in 1981 on the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, Tim has worked in nearly every facet of IT, from systems administration and software architecture to technical writing and training. He can be reached via LinkedIn.

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