The ‘Internet of everything’

Information, goes the old saw, wants to be free. Apparently, it wants to be everywhere, too. That at least is the implication of the “Internet of things” (IoT), a system that connects an ever-expanding array of sensors to the Internet and to each other.

Those linkages facilitate not only communication among those devices but the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data. The Internet of things is on the cusp of becoming a reality, creating an extraordinary new range of opportunities and dangers.

Historians trace the IoT back to 1982, when computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the leading centers of computer study in the United States, grew frustrated by frequent trips to the building’s Coke machine only to discover that it was empty. They installed a sensor in the dispenser and made it accessible through the computer network so that anyone, anywhere, could remotely check the status of the machine (as well as the availability of soft drinks).

Since then, as the price of sensors plummeted, storage capacity exploded and communications devices became ubiquitous, the Internet of things has become possible.

By one estimate, in 2010 there were 12.5 billion connected devices in existence globally, and that number is expected to double to 25 billion by 2015.

Ultimately, rather than an Internet of things, “the Internet of everything,” talked about by John Chambers, president of Cisco, the network system provider, will emerge.

In one of the most famous examples of this new future, IoT enthusiasts point to a refrigerator that can catalog its contents, decide when the milk has expired or the bread needs reordering. Smart houses, in which every appliance and security feature are linked and operated by an app from a phone, are appearing.

Two years after its introduction, a “smart” thermostat that can be accessed remotely — to allow homeowners to turn up the heat 15 minutes before coming home — is reportedly in 1 percent of U.S. homes. A similar device could let a person have a hot bath waiting after a long day of work or a frigid commute. (An Internet-connnected toothbrush is also already available.)

While these may sound like indulgences, the safety, convenience and security that such networks can provide will become increasingly essential for aging societies.

Businesses will find the IoT valuable too, as it allows closer scrutiny of inventories, closer tracking of parts, materials and deliveries. That data should promote greater efficiency and greater control over costs. Remote sensing can be used for agricultural production, safety monitoring and even health care.

Wearable devices, the newest fashion trend, will enable individuals to better monitor their health, immediately and from a distance. That market is forecast to grow from 42 million devices in 2013, with a market value of $0.6 billion, to 171 million in 2018.

The extraordinary opportunities afforded by the Internet of things means that costs will rise when it does not work as designed. Increased dependence on networks will increase the impact of disruptions. It is one thing if a cable is cut and on-demand movies are made unavailable; it is another when emergency response systems go down.

Those new opportunities also create new vulnerabilities and new challenges. First and foremost is the need for strong security, and the IoT magnifies the security concerns exponentially.

If data is valuable, it must be protected and that protection must extend not only to the data itself — an already formidable assignment given the almost daily reports of data thefts — but also to the sensors, which can be tampered with, and the network itself, which is, by definition, ubiquitous.

Mobility eases access for designated users and hackers alike. Since a network is only as strong as its weakest node, a new culture of security among ordinary citizens is going to be required. History and human nature suggest this will be an uphill battle.

A second key challenge is creating a new culture of privacy. Recent revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency have provided a glimpse into the potential of data collection. The Internet of things generates petabytes of data. Although the sheer scale is mind-numbing, authorities are capable of vacuuming it all up and mining it for meaning.

Every one of those sensors provides insight into daily life. While a particular transmission may seem harmless, in combination with other data points it can produce a disturbing and penetrating picture. Few individuals are worried when their web browsing yields data for companies to market their products, but a sensor that identifies medical purchases and produces a consumer profile that could be used to discriminate against a citizen is another matter altogether.

Again, the record is not encouraging. Individual citizens have not been sufficiently vigilant to protect their privacy against invasion; nor have companies been able to protect the data they have collected. It is a dangerous combination and one that will have more alarming results as the Internet of things worms its way into daily life.