What is the Internet of Things?


The Internet of Things is a growing system of billions of devices — or things — worldwide. They connect to the internet and each other through wireless networks.

Remember when refrigerators, air conditioners, and toaster ovens didn't connect to the internet? That’s changed, and you can thank the Internet of Things the next time your refrigerator pings your phone when its power goes out or your air conditioner starts pumping cool air into your living room 10 minutes before you get home from work.

The Internet of Things—or IoT—is a catchy term for what is simply a network of Wi-Fi-enabled appliances or other devices that all connect to the internet. The goal is to create a smart home, one filled with internet-connected appliances that you can control remotely from your phone or other devices.

And the good news? The IoT isn't as futuristic as it seems. Retailers already sell several  appliances that connect to the internet, and they're offering more each day.

Here’s a look at what the Internet of Things can mean for you and the growing importance of IoT security measures. 

The history and future of IoT

It’s not science fiction. We are living connected lives filled with internet-enabled devices that learn our preferences and provide the experiences we want to make our lives more convenient. And the technology that makes it possible to connect our lives is expanding. 

It all started in the early 1980s when Carnegie Mellon University students developed the first internet-connected device. It was a soft drink vending machine that would tell the programmers if the soda was cold enough to justify them making the trip from their desks to the machine.  

Since then, IoT has exploded. What about the future? Devices are growing smaller and smarter. Eventually, everything from your toothbrush to your toaster may be connected to the internet 24/7.

Your gadgets will become household aides, each chatting with one another, working to serve you better. 

How IoT devices work

Smartphones play a key role in the IoT because you can control many IoT devices through an app on a smartphone. You can use your smartphone to communicate with your smart thermostat, for example, to set the perfect temperature for you by the time you get home from work. Another plus? This can eliminate unneeded heating or cooling while you’re away, potentially saving you money on your energy bill.

IoT devices contain sensors and mini-computer processors that act on data collected via machine learning. IoT devices are miniature computers, and because they do connect to the internet, they are also vulnerable to malware and hackers. We’ll get into more about IoT security a little later.

Machine learning is when computers learn in a similar way to humans, by collecting data from their surroundings. It is what makes IoT devices smart. This data can help the machine learn your preferences and adjust itself accordingly. Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that helps computers learn without having to be programmed by someone.

That doesn’t mean your smart speaker will discuss the key points of last night’s big  game with you. But your connected refrigerator may send you an alert on your  smartphone that you’re low on eggs and milk, and it knows it’s near a supermarket. 

IoT security risks

IoT and smart-home technology can make life easier. But there is also a IoT security risks associated with creating a connected home, because smart appliances and devices connect to the internet. They also store data about your preferences. Hackers can exploit vulnerabilities in these devices to learn those preferences. They might also take over some of your devices to spy on you.

Do you have a Google Nest or Amazon Echo device at home? A clever hacker might be able to steal any passwords, credit card information, or bank account numbers if you've ever shared them with these digital assistants.

Hackers might access your IoT network through one of your connected devices and infect them with ransomware. They can then freeze your computers, TV, smart thermostat and other devices, until you pay a hefty ransom, often in cryptocurrency. They might even spy on you through a pet camera or access your automated lighting systems to determine when you are not at home.

How to boost IoT security

There are steps you can take to boost your IoT security.          

  • Don't hesitate to approve security upgrades: Those pop-up messages asking you to approve updates to your devices can be annoying. But they are also important. Make sure to approve these updates. They are often designed to protect your connected devices—everything from your smart TV to your programmable thermostat—from the latest viruses or malware.
  • Create strong passwords: You might not think your smart doorbell needs a complex password. But it does. Hackers can crack weaker passwords, gaining access to your devices and whatever personal or financial information is stored on them. To be safe, create strong passwords, incorporating numbers, letters, and symbols, for all your connected devices.  
  • Keep your router up to date, too: Don't forget that your router is at the heart of your IoT network. Assign it a complex password. And approve any security updates for it, too. Hackers who access your router could take control of the devices connected to it. 
  • Use two-factor authentication: If you have the option, enable two-factor authentication to log onto your IoT devices. In this process, you'll first enter a password and username to log into a device connected to the internet. The device will then send a code to your phone or email. You'll have to enter this code to complete the login process. This does require an extra step when you are logging on, but two-factor authentication also makes it far  more difficult for cybercriminals to access your devices. 

Frequently asked questions 

What does IoT mean? IoT is an acronym for Internet of Things.

What is the Internet of Things? The Internet of Things is a network of Wi-Fi-enabled appliances or other devices that can all connect to the internet.

What are examples of IoT devices? If a device can connect to the internet and has sensors that transmit data, it can be considered an IoT device. This can include a thermostat that sets the temperature before you get home, cameras that alert to motion or a person, or even a pacemaker implanted in your body that sends updates to your phone throughout the day.

Can IoT devices be hacked? Yes, because they are connected to the internet, cybercriminals can take over connected cameras to spy on you or study the lighting patterns from smart lightbulbs to determine when you’re typically not at home.

How can you protect your IoT devices? Assign complex passwords to your IoT devices, approve security updates, and enable two-factor authentication if you can. 

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Dan Rafter
  • Dan Rafter
  • Freelance writer
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.

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