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The new Internet: Billions of things


November 3, 2014
By Tom Rataj

You may have heard about the “Internet of Things” (IoT), a network of uniquely identifiable passive marks, objects or computing devices (‘things’) that are interconnected, trackable or otherwise recognizable.

When most people thing about Internet connected devices, they think of computers, tablets, smartphones and similar devices. The IoT would expand that list to include a wide variety of mostly electronic devices that can perform a wide variety of functions or provide some kind of data or identification.

The devices can be wired directly or connect to the Internet wirelessly through WiFi, Bluetooth, Near Field Communication (NFC) or any number of proprietary long and short range technologies – or indirectly through a connected program or system.

In their simplest form the things can be non-electronic and totally passive identification marks such as 2D and 3D barcodes on individual products, QR codes on products or advertising and digital watermarking on virtually anything.

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The things can also function electronically through common technologies such as a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag or chip (such as the chip in your debit or credit card), a NFC tag or device, smart thermostat such as the NEST, your brand-new “smart-TV” and any other device that performs some function, whether passive or active.

The things can be single use, single purpose objects or devices that last only a few days, weeks or months, or more permanent devices that function for years.

The IoT has the potential to change how the world functions, possibly even more so than the Internet itself. The price of many of the things, such as RFID tags, has plummeted to below one cent each, making them both technically and economically feasible.

The potential is huge. Research firms estimate that by 2020 there will be 26 to 30 billion devices on the IoT. One researcher suggests that people living in urban areas are already surrounded by between 1,000 and 5,000 trackable objects which, if all tagged by some “thing,” would quickly add up to billions of things.

{Big Brother}

While the IoT has the potential to create a better world in many ways, many people are concerned about personal privacy, autonomy and general security. The constant stream of hacking scandals makes one wonder about how secure this data will be and the risks and potentials for abuse and misuse.

Some parts of the IoT are potentially troubling. Intelligent shopping systems for example, which track users’ smartphones, are able to identify individual shoppers and serve up customized offers or sale items based on purchasing habits in that store.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has already expressed concerns about the IoT, noting that people may start losing control of their lives. Since much of the IoT is corporately driven, one has to wonder about how much to trust the companies who have data about you. In some parts of the world dictatorial regimes could also use the data to control their populations even further.

A good example of the dark side is the scandal last year when researchers discovered that the cameras built into some Smart-TVs could be hacked into over the Internet, potentially allowing someone to surreptitiously see what’s happening in front of the TV.

Other concerns with Smart-TV include their ability to collect and transmit date about users’ viewing choices and habits back to the manufacturer. Companies usually claim they use this information only for “product development” research but there is little to stop them from also using it for marketing purposes or selling it to another firm.

A Smart-TV has an Internet Protocol (IP) address and a physical serial number, so it’s a uniquely identifiable object in several ways. When the customer registers the product for warranty purposes, all the dots get connected: name, address, phone numbers, e-mail address and perhaps some volunteered “demographic” information. How valuable is that to a big corporation, or someone that’s hacked into their system?

Intelligence agencies view the IoT as a potentially rich source of valuable data for national security and other purposes.

{Monitoring}

Because of the extremely low cost of many of the simple IoT things, large numbers can easily be deployed in the field to provide far more extensive capabilities and data than traditional dedicated devices.

Earthquake and tsunami early warning systems, environmental monitoring systems and intelligent video monitoring systems can benefit greatly from the IoT.

Instead of being limited to a small number of expensive dedicated monitoring devices connected to a private network, these cheap new things could provide extensive data and earlier warnings. This would enable quicker and far more efficient and effective response to events and emergencies.

Because of the low power requirements of many new devices and their wireless connections, a small solar panel and battery can easily power a remote device, allowing it to provide data for years.

Many urban dwellers already have the new Smart-Meters, which constantly send data to the hydro utility about power consumption. Not only do they eliminate the expense of monthly meter-reader visits, they also provide a wealth of valuable and important live data to the utility. My residential water-meters were recently upgraded with a new wireless transmitter that sends usage data to the utility.

In the medical field, devices such as the Philips Lifeline show the advantages and potential of IoT. A sensor detects when someone wearing the device may have fallen and automatically summons help.

Many other possibilities exist, including fitting patients with a device to constantly monitor heart performance, both for diagnostic purposes and to summon help during life threatening events. This replaces otherwise expensive hospitalization and diagnostic equipment.

Apple and Microsoft both recently announced affordable health apps and devices that have the potential to accomplish many monitoring tasks with little or no user intervention.

{Policing}

The possibilities for policing are almost endless, both operationally and for investigations. Equipment and supplies could be easily tracked for inventory purposes and each box or bag of evidence could be tagged, allowing administrators and users to know exactly where an item is at any given moment. This goes far beyond any kind of barcode based system currently being used.

IoT devices could even be attached to suspect clothing to assist in surveillance and tracking operations.

Data collected and analyzed by a wide variety of private enterprises could prove to be extremely valuable, especially in complex cases such as homicides. Think of how often private CCTV systems are already tapped for routine police investigations.

Private enterprises can also analyze all the data they routinely collect, identifying criminal behaviour in-house or externally and providing information to police for investigative and prosecutorial purposes.

{Data}

With billions of IoT devices connected together and collecting, generating and processing data, the ability to store and work with all that information will become crucial. Much of it may just be aggregated to provide an anonymous overview, but as the smart-TV and intelligent shopping systems show, the dots can quickly be connected, turning anonymous user data into valuable customer information.


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