If you’re reading this article you probably pretty familiar with the internet, but how much do you know about the Internet of Things (IoT)? Even if you haven’t heard the phrase, it’s likely you’ve interacted with the IoT, maybe even on a daily basis. This phrase refers to the devices all around the world that are connected to the internet. With processors getting smaller and smaller there are now billions of these devices sending, receiving and collecting data across the globe. 

While it would be a logical assumption to believe that cellphones, tablets and computers are part of the Internet of Things, IoT actually only refers to devices that would still be usable without the internet, but wouldn’t be able to be controlled remotely. Steve Ranger of ZDNet described these devices as: “[Those] that wouldn’t usually be generally expected to have an internet connection, and that can communicate with the network independently of human action.” These devices could be as simple as a remote controlled light, as complicated as the engine in a high-performance vehicle, or as inocuos as a motion sensor. 

There are more than twice the number of devices composing the IoT as there are people on the planet: an estimated 20 billion everyday objects communicating all around us. While connecting Smart Home devices — such as Amazon’s Alexa — are meant to make our lives more convenient, others are designed to keep us safe — like street lights or traffic signals. While IoT technologies have many benefits, there are also risks born in the wake of this innovation. 

On the more individual end of things, viruses unleashed on the IoT could tamper with household appliances or security systems; while at the macro level, societal stability could be the target. With cities implementing more automation, more surveillance, and more remote feedback, foreign nations could infect or crash hundreds of millions of devices without ever living their country. This means that street lights, traffic signals, bridges, security systems, and self-driving cars could all be under terrorist control; while devices with microphones or speakers could be used for espionage or propaganda. 

Even with the rapid acceleration of technology, the demand for affordable smart devices lead to software inside many of these smart devices that is immutable. This means that many IoT devices aren’t able to be patched, so even if a security flaw is found, it can’t be fixed which leaves them permanently at risk. Certain devices, such as routers and webcams, are easy targets due to their inherent lack of security; while smartwatches and thermostats are targeted for the detailed insight they provide into an individual’s daily life and patterns. 

Threats related to the IoT don’t just come from abroad, however. Data sent from IoT devices is collected and analyzed by the developer to improve the product’s functionality and performance. Some of these companies go a step further and actually sell the data they collect, presenting huge privacy concerns such as who ends up with this personal and potentially revealing information. 

Wikileaks claimed that the CIA was developing methods to exploit the security of connected Samsung TVs, which might not be too far fetched when a comment from  James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, is considered: “In the future, intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.”

Continued advancements in security are constantly making strides toward safer and safer devices; however, as powerful security technology develops, so does the capability and intelligence of hackers. Overall, the IoT is not a thing to be feared, but also shouldn’t be relied upon, at least until standardized security measures are taken across the market to protect privacy and to guard against viruses and attacks.