What Is the Internet of Things? IoT Explained

Until recently, Internet access was limited to traditional devices such as computers, tablets, and phones. But now, almost any home device can connect to the Internet thanks to the IoT, or the Internet of Things. But what exactly is the "Internet of Things?" In this article, learn what IoT is and how it works, as well as potential online privacy and IoT device management cybersecurity concerns with IoT devices.

What is IoT?

Put simply, the Internet of Things is a system made up of physical object devices that share data with each other over the Internet. IoT is what enables us to have "smart" homes with Amazon Echos and voice-activated lights. When you connect the devices in your home to each other, they can gather data and communicate with each other in real time to optimize your home life.

Consider your phone alarm going off in the morning, prompting the smart lights to turn on, the blinds to open, and the coffee maker to start brewing you a cup of coffee. For this to be possible in the real world, all of these devices need to rely on smart technology. In other words, they need to have computer chips that allow for Internet connectivity. Taken together, all of these Internet-connected devices make up the "Internet of Things."

How does IoT work?

As you might imagine, the proper functioning of smart systems requires a lot of data transfer and processing in the back end. It involves many components - the smart devices themselves, sensing devices, a cloud computing IoT application, and a user interface.

To explain how IoT technology works, consider a popular smart home device - smart lighting systems.

In this example, the device is a smart hub system that connects all of the individual lights via wireless networks such as WiFi or a mesh-type network called Zigbee. The hub is typically compatible with voice-activated systems like Alexa or Google Assistant. Compatible systems like those allows homeowners to control their lighting system with their voice.

The sensing devices, on the other hand, are the lights themselves. These devices can often detect motion or daytime and nighttime lighting in order to respond accordingly.

The smart hub communicates the sensor data and lighting system settings directly to the cloud. The cloud retrieves, stores, and even analyzes the data in some cases. Furthermore, when the hub system needs a software update, the cloud transmits that data to the hub. This is the cloud-based IoT application for this example.

Finally, the user interface, usually a mobile app or website, allows the user to control the lighting system remotely. These human interventions include setting timers and schedules, dimming the lights, changing lighting temperatures and colors, changing settings for sensors, and so on.  The user interface typically also provides data reports to the user about when lights have turned on and off and the lifespan of light bulbs.

All together, these elements allow an Internet of Things system to properly function, delivering to the user abilities that normal, non-smart devices wouldn't be capable of.

Internet of Things examples

A visual of various devices that are a part of the IoT (Internet of Things) - agriculture equipment, medical equipment, thermostats, washing machines, cars, and lighting systems.

Though we may not realize the number of devices in our day-to-day life that are reliant on smart technology, there are quite a few. Buildings or groups of buildings, like those on corporate campuses, use the Internet of Things to maximize efficiency. They use smart lighting systems and smart heating and air units, which help reduce energy costs.

Many of these IoT devices also come equipped with sensors; lights and heating systems in the IoT use these sensors to determine whether or not a space is being used, which allows the systems to turn off when not needed. Smart cities use many of these same technologies, as well as smart weather sensors, communication devices, and more.

Smart cars are also part of the IoT. Modern cars are essentially computers on wheels. They collect data from the car, including information from the speedometer, odometer, brakes, engine, and fuel tank.

Many even monitor driving performance and suggest future maintenance needs. That data, then, improves the experience of the driver and the longevity of the car.

Any driver-assist features on a car also indicate its connectivity to the Internet of Things; these features use sensors that monitor the car's performance and its environment to perform duties like automatic braking, lane changing, and automatic parallel parking.

Many people have smart doorbells hooked up to their doors now, like the Ring doorbell. These devices allow residents to view what's happening outside their door in real time from anywhere, even when not in the area.

Smart TVs are another example of IoT devices. They communicate with other devices on the network to provide streaming services and channels not offered on cable. Chances are good that you have at least one or two Internet of Things devices in your home or office.

Internet of Things security and privacy concerns

Despite the many benefits of IoT, IoT device management or mobile device management also poses certain risks. As with any Internet-connected device, IoT devices can be hacked. This means that any time users connect a new device to the Internet, it expands the potential threat to their privacy and security.

Each new device provides new data about users' habits, usage patterns, and lifestyle. Should the information fall into the wrong hands, it becomes a risk.

There's also the issue of knowledge; through no fault of their own, users integrating these smart devices into their homes may not know proper protection methods. They might not realize what issues could come up or they might forget to change passwords from the default settings. They don't perform firmware or software updates, thinking they aren't important. All of these seemingly minor slip-ups make the devices and IoT system - and, subsequently, the user - more vulnerable.

When considering the billions of devices connected to the Internet, it becomes clear why IoT security breaches are a concern for individuals and organizations alike.

To best protect yourself and your devices, make sure to do the following:

Once you learn how to control IoT devices, it will help keep your information and your devices secure, no matter how many smart devices you add to your home or place of business.

Frequently asked questions

What does IoT mean?

IoT means Internet of Things (IoT).

What are three IoT device examples?

Three examples of Internet of Thing systems are smart home security systems, digital health equipment like smart blood sugar monitors, and automated agricultural or harvesting equipment.

Is a smartphone an IoT device?

No, a smartphone is not considered an IoT device. Smartphones often serves as a hub for other IoT devices, like smart lighting systems. However, they already have general computing abilities and are innately "smart" devices.

Do IoT devices have firewalls?

Not all IoT devices have built-in firewalls. However, in many cases, you can adjust the IoT device firmware and install a firewall to protect the device.