National Geographic News
Picture of a woman holding up an RFID chip tag

A woman shows off the Alien Squiggle Tag—a radio frequency identification technology tag that uses a small chip for tracking.

Photograph by Skip Peterson, Associated Press

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published August 30, 2013

This week, the Oxford English Dictionary added the phrase "Internet of things" to its hallowed pages, along with such neologisms as Bitcoin (a virtual currency), selfie (a self-portrait photo), twerk (a new dance move), and fauxhawk (a mohawk hairstyle achieved with gel and a comb).

But what exactly is the Internet of things, and how might the emerging technology change our lives?

The Internet of things is a concept that aims to extend the benefits of the regular Internet—constant connectivity, remote control ability, data sharing, and so on—to goods in the physical world. Foodstuffs, electronics, appliances, collectibles: All would be tied to local and global networks through embedded sensors that are "always on."

Sometimes called the "Internet of everything," the term Internet of things was coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, a British technology pioneer who helped develop the concept. Proponents say the benefits to consumers are substantial, although critics raise concerns about privacy and security.

In order for objects to interface with the existing Internet, they must have some means to connect. This is being done largely via radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, although other means are also being used, including old-fashioned barcodes, QR (quick response) codes, and wireless connection systems like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Ashton co-founded the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999, which developed a global standard for RFID. That technology grew out of earlier iterations invented in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In the mid-1990s, Ashton worked for Procter & Gamble, where he saw that RFID chips could help the company keep track of its massive array of products. Today, RFID chips are used by many companies to manage their inventories. They also make passports scannable by Homeland Security, and enable farecards to be read at subway terminals. Farmers use the chips to keep track of livestock.

In 2011, the world spent an estimated $6.37 billion on RFID chips, but that market is expected to balloon to more than $20 billion by 2014, according to RFID World Canada, a website that follows the industry.

ABI Research, a market research firm, says that more than 30 billion devices will form an Internet of things by 2020. But what does that mean?

(Related: "Smart Meters Take Bite Out of Electricity Theft.")

Advantages of a Wired World

Proponents like Helen Duce, director of the RFID Technology Auto-ID European Centre at the University of Cambridge, argue that the technology will provide great efficiencies across many industries. Stores won't have to worry about running out of products, because an automated inventory-control system will know how many packs of gum or boxes of diapers are on hand at any given moment.

Consumers will be able to set their fridge to order new groceries for delivery when the eggs run out or the milk expires. Forget to turn off the oven? No problem, turn a dial on your smartphone from anywhere in the world. No need to turn off the lights: Your rooms will know when you enter or leave, setting all systems just the way you like them, since they will be able to detect when the phone in your pocket is near.

Already, consumers can save money, and carbon emissions, during peak energy periods by agreeing to let their utility turn down their air conditioner a few degrees remotely.

Duce recently wrote, "We have a clear vision—to create a world where every object—from jumbo jets to sewing needles—is linked to the Internet."

In a push toward adoption of this technology, Songdo in South Korea aims to become the first totally wired "smart city," where almost every item interfaces with an Internet of things. Planners hope to collect a vast wealth of data on everyday objects, and use that to increase efficiencies.

Security Concerns?

It's obvious that military agencies will need to make sure that missiles and other systems of war aren't hijacked by hackers. But what is the risk of your neighbor turning your toaster against you?

The U.S. National Intelligence Council produced a report in 2008 that warned it would be hard to deny "access to networks of sensors and remotely controlled objects by enemies of the United States, criminals, and mischief makers."

The report also noted that it's unclear how much of the data from the Internet of things could or should be used by law enforcement, versus how much should be considered private information.

(See: "Who's Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out.")

Writing in ITBusinessEdge, Loraine Lawson warned that an Internet of things will provide challenges for computer programmers, who will soon have the networking of billions of devices to contend with. Updates and patches are going to be tricky, she wrote, as will finding signals in all the noise.

Lawson suggested that the solutions will have to come through smart, stable software that doesn't require too much processing power.

"In short, the IoT (Internet of things) may cause a lot of headaches, but it could also prove to be very transformative for organizations," she wrote.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

Alva Christi
Alva Christi

Internet of Things may change the world. People are relying more on advanced technologies and IoT is a scenario in which objects, animals or people are able to transfer data over a network and talk to each other without requiring any medium.The internet has become the logistical hub in our lives.A lot has been already changed since the inception of the Internet and many more will get changed with the greater Internet connectivity. 

mike sangha
mike sangha

IeT is a reality. The naysayers are likely the same ones who thought the internet itself was a fad with a limited appeal. I think those that are raising issues about ethics and security are right on queue. We need to get a handle on those issues. We are all going to be connected. Yes, even us! I found this blog interesting: There is a lot more information on some of these issues.

Box Ohohfour
Box Ohohfour

I'm sorry, I just can't see a single positive thing about any of this. In fact, it could well be enough to motivate the individual to rip open their toasters and microwaves to find those little intrusive devices and send them out to the nearest landfill.

Ulf Mattsson
Ulf Mattsson

I agree about the "Security Concerns". It can create potential issues with privacy and regulations. 

We know that Big Data is the only way to handle the volume and speed required for "Internet of Things" data collection and analysis, but many organizations have rushed into Big Data focused solely on ROI, and security is an afterthought.

There is also a shortage in Big Data skills and an industry-wide shortage in data security personnel, so many organizations don’t even know they are doing anything wrong from a security perspective.  The big differences with Big Data is that we are changing the way we are dealing with data.

Collecting and processing a huge amount of data is now more feasible and cost effective with Big Data technology. Our IT teams are used to structure the data before loading it into traditional databases, but Big Data is different.

I think that many organizations shortly will be struggling with a major big data barrier: 

1. I think a big data security crisis is likely to occur very soon and few organizations have the ability to deal with it.

2. We have little knowledge about data loss or theft in big data environments.

3. I imagine it is happening today but has not been disclosed to the public.

The good news is that some organizations are proactive and successfully using new approaches to address issues with security and privacy in Big Data environments. These new security approaches are required since Big Data is based on new and different architecture. Big Data is very different – not like our traditional databases.

I recently read an interesting report from Aberdeen Group that revealed that “Over the last 12 months, tokenization users had 50% fewer security-related incidents(e.g., unauthorized access, data loss or data exposure than tokenization non-users”. The name of the study, released a few months ago, is “Tokenization Gets Traction”.

Ulf Mattsson, CTO Protegrity


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