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Internet of Things

In 1969, the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) connected computer networks at the University of California and the Stanford Research Institute. This laid the foundation to the Internet as we know it today, which went live on August 6, 1991. Since then we have come leaps and bounds, our lives interconnected with technology and information.

In fact, we have become so connected that now, everyday devices and appliances such as fridges, coffee machines, lights and door locks, can all be connected to the internet. This level of connectivity is known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Simply speaking, IoT refers to all the devices that are connected to the internet, as well as being connected to each other.

Although the term has only gained widespread use in recent years, it was likely conceptualised back in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, a co-founder of the Auto-ID center at MIT. However, the first occurrence of an appliance being connected to the internet happened much earlier - a Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. Using the internet, programmers were able to check stock levels and drink temperature.

Whilst this was a significant milestone at the time, having day-to-day devices connected to the internet is common practice nowadays. Almost every device you can think of can be connected to the internet. In fact, in 2008 the number of connected devices to the internet surpassed the number of people – giving “birth” to the Internet of Things. And just as with any other new technological milestone, IoT brings both incredible benefits, and tremendous risk.

Benefits of IoT

From automating processes through and across supply chains, to providing more seamless customer service experience, IoT provides many benefits for businesses and ultimately, saves them a lot of time and money. It also encourages businesses to think outside the box, to break conventional methods and invent new ones for a fraction of the cost.

Smart buildings for example, know when to turn heating up or down based on the amount of people in the room, reducing energy usage. Hospitals use IoT devices to monitor patients and record inventory. In more industrial settings, smart systems use IoT devices to track stock, check lighting conditions, automating whole irrigation systems and so forth.

For the individual, IoT makes life a lot easier by making ‘dumb’ devices smart. For example, many home appliances such as heat pumps, coffee machines, door-locks, cameras etc. can all be controlled remotely via smart devices; whether it is your desktop, your phone, your tablet, or even your watch.

Security Risks

Just as much as it is a benefit to society, IoT also poses a great threat in the form of cyber-attacks. Take car engines for example; it is well known that more parts equal more things that could go wrong/break. The same can be said for IoT. As devices are not just connected to the internet but also to each other, gaining access to one can potentially compromise a whole network.

Moreover, devices have different chips, operating systems, security protocols etc. Monitoring different devices and making sure they all work safely and seamlessly is no easy feat. Failure to appropriately secure each device can have global implications.  

The Mirai botnet for example, is a network of compromised IoT devices (CCTV cameras in this case) that almost brought down the internet in 2016. To cut a long story short, the hackers who created Mirai designed it to scan the internet for open ports, and attempt to log in to those ports by entering a series of default passwords. Once they gained access to the device, they could use it as a part of a large scale DDOS attack to shut down network provides.

Although the scale of the attack was extremely alarming, the simplicity and ease of which it took over devices was the scariest part of it all. Luckily, besides making a quick buck, the teenagers (…yes, teenagers) behind the attack did not have overly nefarious intentions. After actuating several major DDOS attacks in 2016, they were subsequently caught and prosecuted in 2018.

What’s next?

Clearly, there is a need for more robust protocols and systems to prevent these types of attacks from happening. This is why the two biggest chip manufacturers – ARM and Intel – have decided to work together to manage networks of IoT connected devices. Arm has agreed to adopt Intel’s standard for network security whilst Intel has decided to adopt ARM’s IoT management platform, Pelion. This will allow devices to be managed automatically through a single platform.

With the number of IoT devices expecting to reach over 20 billion by 2020,  it is certainly a step in the right direction.

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