IoT, the Internet of Things, is the acronym you’ll need to learn this year. It’s a catch-all term for devices and appliances that connect to the internet via your home WiFi. A good example is a coffee machine that prepares a brew for you with a command from your phone. We look at what these devices can do and the potential risks.
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Despite the term being around for a decade, IoT devices are just starting to gain ground. The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas showcased hundreds of devices, from washing machines to cars, featuring built-in connections to voice-controlled virtual assistants, such as Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.
IoT devices are at an odd stage of life. The positives are easy to grasp, but not life-changing – and the negatives, while proven by security researchers in the lab, are still mostly hypothetical in real life.
IoT devices are sold on an ability to make life slightly easier. When they are all working in concert, IoT devices work so well you eventually take them for granted.
There’s something sci-fi about saying “turn the lights on in the lounge” and having the lamps light up. Or, tapping your phone and having your stereo turn on and play music in another room.
Much of what IoT devices offer are digital versions of analogue products. Take outdoor lights – currently, you might have to manually flick a switch or walk past a motion sensor to turn the light on. But if your lights were WiFi-connected, you could set the outside light to come on when it detects your phone’s GPS getting close to home. Furthermore, when you’re away, a sensor in your WiFi security camera can turn on a light and send you a text.
The best part of IoT technology is the extra functionality unlocked by the connectivity. You can set up devices with “on/off” commands (lights turn on at 6pm and off at 11pm) or go deep with customisation (lights turn on at 6pm, unless I’m not at home, then also turn on the stereo at 30% volume and enable alerts from the security camera).
Virtual assistants add voice commands and online shopping to the mix. Voice recognition has reached a point where you can speak in a conversational tone and the device will recognise what you mean.
IoT devices work best when they know everything about you – where you live and work, your daily routines, the websites you browse, and everything you say. All this data is collected and stored to make the device better at helping you.
But where that data is stored, how it’s secured, how it’s used and who has access are huge concerns. For a virtual assistant to work effectively, voice data is collected with constantly open “hot” mics. Everything you say is recorded and kept in a depository for the voice recognition system to learn human speech patterns.
At this point, the line between helpful and creepy gets blurry.
Even if you’re OK with a giant corporation having (and owning) your information there’s still the issue of data security. Corporations leak information all the time. Your data could be exposed and available to anyone with a small amount of tech savviness.
There is also the issue of the security of the actual devices, which could potentially allow access to your whole home network.
Researchers are constantly discovering new security flaws. Like anything connected to the internet, it’s a constant battle to keep an IoT device secure. Holes in your security could let in malicious software or lead to your data being exposed. Flaws can be patched when discovered, but cheaper and older devices tend not to get fixes and even a small hole could be enough.
We’re keeping a close eye on developments in IoT. It’s clear this is where many major brands are going with their products and we’ll be seeing more enter the market. What’s not so clear is if the potential security and privacy threats will come to pass.
By Hadyn Green