The internet of things explained
By Martin Pratt
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The internet of things lets more of our devices go online than ever before, but is that something you need and will your data be secure?
The internet of things is giving more of our everyday household items access to the internet. Gone are the days when accessing the internet was confined to using computers with a mouse and keyboard.
Now, internet-enabled mobile phones and TVs are the norm, and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to connected devices. From fridge-freezers to thermostats and even kettles, appliances and gizmos that have sat silent in our homes for years now have the ability to connect and communicate with each other.
In this guide we’ll bring you up to speed on the internet of things, including the latest gadgets, and reveal why you need to be concerned about your personal data and how you can help keep it secure.
Is it worth investing in a smart washing machine? To find out, read smart washing machines explained.
What is the internet of things?
The internet of things - or IoT for short - is a collective term for internet-connected devices that can access and share data between each other and online. It’s typically used when referring to wi-fi enabled fridges, washing machines and other devices we don’t usually associate with the internet. But smartwatches, tablets and smartphones are all IoT devices, too.
Being wi-fi enabled means these IoT devices can interact in new ways. They can operate autonomously or be controlled, often from an app on your smartphone.
One of the more common examples is smart thermostats. Many are now supplied by energy firms such as British Gas with the Hive system, Scottish Power’s Connect thermostat and HeatSmart from EDF Energy.
Because they are internet connected, you can control them remotely - as long as you have a data connection. That means you can adjust your heating on your way home from work, or turn it off, if you’re going to be home later than expected.
Although smart thermostats like Hive are, technically, IoT devices, they aren’t as versatile as some of their competitors. Take the Nest, this thermostat can connect with hundreds of other devices. You can use Amazon’s voice-activated speaker, Echo, to turn your heating on and off. If you’ve got smart light bulbs and a Nest smoke alarm as well, it can signal your bulbs to change to bright red and switch your boiler off if it detects smoke.
Automated functions like the ones found on Nest devices come into their own the more connected devices you have. Having a motion sensor on your doorway can be a useful security aid by sending an alert to your phone if it detects movement, but the utility can go beyond security. It can send another message to your light bulbs so they turn on when you come through the door and another to your kettle so the water’s boiled for a brew by the time you’ve taken your shoes off.
This level of integration is the holy grail of IoT – having a house full of devices working harmoniously to the point where you barely need to interact with them anymore.
Don't know your Hive from your Nest? We reveal the differences between smart thermostats - see our smart thermostats comparison.
The good and the bad of IoT
For every useful IoT gadget on the market, such as fitness trackers and smartwatches that can monitor how well you're sleeping, how many calories you’re burning during exercise and display messages from your smartphone, there are products out there that needs to be internet connected as much as a fish needs scuba gear.
Take the Vessyl smart cup, for example. It tells you how much you’ve drunk and how much you should be drinking to be fully hydrated based on your size, age and activity levels. It will send an alert to your smartphone or smartwatch when it’s time for a drink, too - if only our body had a way of telling us when we needed one…
Some of the best IoT devices are ones many of us already have. Wireless speakers that can access your entire digital music collection and smart TVs that, through apps like Netflix and Amazon Video, can stream more shows and films than you could watch in a lifetime.
What about outside the home?
Connected devices aren’t confined to the home. There are ambitious plans to bring IoT into the cities we live in.
As with smart thermostats and light bulbs, connected city tech is designed to make our lives easier and improve efficiency. Street lights that turn off when no one is around and car parks that can lead your sat nav or car to empty spaces are just some of the potential uses for IoT.
Connected cities will also be used for collecting data. Sensors on buildings can measure footfall, traffic and how clean the air is. That data can then be used to prioritise improvements – fixing cracked pavements on busier thoroughfares first, for example.
How will the internet of things affect me at work?
Many IoT devices in offices, warehouses and factories are geared towards efficiency and saving money. Smart thermostats and light bulbs that shut off automatically when everyone has left for the day will save energy. And printers that detect when they are running low on ink and order their own replacement cartridges means one less job for a busy office manager.
These familiar products with a smart twist are the bedrock of IoT. But in a work environment, people monitoring is another possible implementation. Being able to track any individual can highlight how long someone is away from their desk, on break and whether they are leaving early. This all sounds a little dystopian and the thought of a Big Brother boss being aware of your every move could create an oppressive environment, rather than a productive one.
What else should I know about the internet of things?
Whether in the home, the workplace or outside, how connected devices use the data they collect and maintain the security of their networks are the chief concerns with IoT.
What exactly happens to our personal information? Previously, privacy concerns extended to addresses, usernames and email addresses, but these gadgets know our routines, how healthy we are and even what we look like.
Click the link at the bottom of the page to see why smart tech is such a security risk. And find out what can you do to ensure your most personal information remains private and your connected home stays secure.