Explaining how the Internet of Things works

Explaining how the Internet of Things works

Wednesday, 15 May, 2019

The phrase ‘Internet of Things’ has entered public consciousness in recent years, with some people suggesting its impact could rival the internet itself in terms of significance.

The IoT is defined in dictionaries as the networking capability that enables everyday devices to send and receive data via an internet connection.

Estimates suggest there will be 20 billion Internet of Things devices worldwide by next year, and many of the objects in your home today are already IoT-compatible.

But why is this advantageous, and how does the technology underpinning it work?

Things ain’t what they used to be

Until recently, the internet was only available on a limited number of hardwired or WiFi-equipped devices, such as games consoles and mobile devices.

Yet the same principles used to transmit PS4 and iPad content wirelessly is equally effective when harnessed by other electrical appliances.

Data is uploaded to central servers without any human input, before being analysed and responded to, or used to improve efficiency and productivity.

Manufacturers’ ability to incorporate WiFi capabilities into ever-smaller devices has led to an explosion of newly-sentient hardware in numerous markets:

  • Home security. Doorbells that send alerts to your phone rely on WiFi connectivity to provide live updates, as do security systems accessible via an app
  • Smart speakers. Amazon Alexa and Google Home are leading examples of domestic speakers evolving into web-enabled voice assistants
  • Health devices. Bathroom scales which upload weight and BMI data to an online server couldn’t function without connectivity. Nor could wearable fitness and activity trackers
  • Remote-controlled appliances. It’s now possible to adjust the central heating, turn on the oven and check stock levels inside the fridge – all from anywhere in the world.

I don’t want to miss a thing

These examples represent the vanguard of a technological revolution which could alter every aspect of modern life.

Using the forthcoming 5G mobile network, cars might safely pilot themselves to a requested destination while reserving and paying for on-site parking – all without any human input.

Sensors may indicate developing health conditions long before patients would otherwise be aware of them, automatically reserving a video consultation in an expert’s diary.

The Internet of Things is all about connectivity and data – the former ensuring the latter can be dispatched to improve future decision-making or service provision.

However, data requires effective processing to deliver tangible results.

There’s little benefit in a smart toothbrush sending user feedback to your dentist, if they don’t respond with tailored advice at your next appointment.

And given the immense volumes of data IoT devices could ultimately generate, vast amounts of processing power will be needed to make sense of all this raw material.

Even better than the real thing

If the Internet of Things is to succeed in making our lives better, it must be secure.

Most IoT-enabled devices upload information across WiFi networks, which are often protected by default passwords and easy-to-guess admin credentials.

From security systems to smart speakers, this treasure trove of personally identifiable information (PII) would be manna from heaven to a criminal.

Someone with basic eavesdropping technology could sit outside a connected home and pilfer huge amounts of sensitive PII without the victim realising anything was happening.

And at present, there are no industry-wide IoT security protocols, resulting in a patchwork quilt of encryption and security measures with varying effectiveness.

Many IoT devices are cheap to buy, and designed for easy installation.

Not only are complex security features unappealing to less tech-savvy consumers, they could diminish battery life.

A variety of solutions may ultimately be required, from digital certificates and SSL encryption through to improved WiFi security.

In the meantime, anyone reading this article with security concerns should take the following basic precautions:

  1. Change the username, admin name and password on your broadband router – the gateway between IoT devices and the world.
  2. Activate the highest security settings on any IoT devices around the home as a matter of routine, replacing default passwords like ‘123456’.
  3. Install updates. Software systems are periodically revised to counter known threats as they emerge, so always update devices when prompted or invited to.
  4. Avoid accessing IoT devices over insecure networks. Public WiFi in coffee shops and hotels is unsafe for accessing confidential information like home security equipment.
Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!