Think of a small child describing something really big and placing his hands as far apart as possible, nearly falling backward in the process.

The Internet of Things is even bigger than that.

By 2020, it is estimated that 50 billion electronic devices will be wirelessly connected to the internet around the globe. Many of those devices will be able to communicate with each other. Many do now. 

The phenomenon is called the Internet of Things and it becomes “a two-edged sword” in the cyberworld, according to Ed Tivol, who runs CyPhySecurity LLC, in Alvaton. CyPhySecurity personnel evaluate the security of computer systems, such as those found at electrical power plants.

Tivol says the Internet of Things, or IoT for short, promises a future of convenience for everyone.

One diagram produced by Beecham Research of Boston and London notes IoT encompasses the following sectors: buildings, energy, consumer and home, health care and life science, industrial, transportation, retail, security and public safety and IT and networks.

A white paper developed by SAS sees applications in retail, connected vehicles and so-called “smart” cities, where sensors can monitor myriad data points within their structures.

The SAS report compiled in May notes that RFID inventory tracking chips, traditional in-store infrared foot-traffic counters, cellular and Wi-Fi tracking systems and the customer’s mobile device can all be used in the retail sector. 

“It makes it possible to seamlessly connect all devices,” Tivol said of the Internet of Things. “Since you have to (connect) wirelessly, you can encrypt signals.” 

Tivol said even with encryption, there is still a danger those wireless signals can be intercepted by a third party.

The computer hacker sometimes has the capability to take the device over, using it for possibly nefarious purposes.

The possibility of a device takeover concerns Stacy Wilson, an electrical engineer and professor at Western Kentucky University, who specializes in system identification, controls systems and supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, security.

“How many devices do you have that are smart devices? Any device is open to attack,” Wilson said.

Wilson discusses the ethics of IoT with her students.

Industrial plants built and operated in America years ago didn’t have to worry about the computer security issues that they do now, she said. Programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, have replaced hard-wired relay technology in industrial plants. Wilson’s students are working on a project this fall with the University of Louisville testing newly installed PLCs. Wilson said companies have a choice whether to close their computer systems off to the rest of the world; however, if they do that, they lose the advantages of the latest interactive technology. 

Tivol, who has worked in internet security for more than two decades, said the likelihood of an encrypted wireless signal being taken over by an outside party becomes the risk in using the wireless computer system and weighing that risk is the cost of doing business.

“You can increase productivity without increasing labor costs,” Tivol said. “There is no perfect defense, but you can make it difficult to get (outside) computer access.”

The majority of internet security issues are linked to human behavior, Tivol said.

Sensors, such as PLCs, are more prevalent than in years past and they measure just about everything.

Julie Ellis, engineering department chairman and professor at WKU, said the Fitbit device is an example of a useful sensor. Besides telling Ellis how many steps she’s taken that day, the Fitbit also works all through the night monitoring her sleep patterns.

“It tracks how often you are wakeful,” Ellis said.

Ellis, whose academic specialities are power electronics, energy studies and international service learning, said having access to that information helps her plan her health routine. The sky is the limit for sensor development potential, she said.

“There are things that we haven’t imagined doing,” Ellis said.

For example, bridges built today can be outfitted with sensors so needed maintenance can be tracked. Science, as of yet, hasn’t created sensors that reason and think for themselves.

“The question is how much control and trust do we put in the devices?” Ellis asked.

That bridge, a span that splits to allow huge sea-worthy traffic through its upraised sides to the ocean, could be given the ability to make a decision.

“The bridge sensor says, ‘500 million crossings reported without preventative maintenance,’ and the sensor shuts the bridge down. The risk is when we let it make decisions for us,” Ellis said. 

The sensor may not know that maintenance was conducted on schedule and the bridge shutdown was not necessary, the professor said.

Ellis said IoT extends the partnership that we have with our electronic devices. “We have a partnership now with our computers. They help us with spreadsheets and processing documents,” she said.

The devices could do more to assist us. “We need get engaged with the technology – get a clue,” Ellis said. “The average person on the street has a clue because they are using these things.”

IoT has power to redefine everyday life

DirectEnergy.com tells its customers on its website that the IoT “has the power to redefine your everyday life.”

Direct Energy is a utility company that operates in 10 Canadian provinces, all 50 U.S. states – including the District of Columbia – and its North American headquarters is in Houston according to a company biography on its webpage.

“The IoT is defined as ‘intelligent interactivity between humans and things to exchange information and knowledge for new value creation.’ ” the Direct Energy website noted. “This computing concept is aimed at linking everyday objects and appliances to the internet, which allows these items to self-identify and recognize other items and devices around them. ...

“This increased communication will allow technological devices to talk to one another through downloads and status updates, with the goal of improving the efficiency and usefulness of every device in your home. In order to communicate with the things around it, each device would be embedded with specialized electronics, sensors, and/or software supporting this communication. This creates the potential to turn any device or item into a “smart thing,” i.e., smartphones or thermostats,” the website noted.

There is a lot of interest in the development of the sensors. A new report from Lux Research noted developers of innovative sensors have attracted $3.4 billion for sensor modules over the past decade, underlining their importance in the IoT. 

Lux Research analysts added overall investment in innovative sensors tripled between 2006 and 2015, reaching $486 million in 2015. Over the past decade, sensor processing-related technologies received over $620 million in funding, while packaging solutions attracted just over $200 million and developers of energy harvesting got around $100 million, the online report noted.

Cognitive computing setting stage for future

Cognitive computing – giving a computer the ability to solve its own problems – expands overall computer knowledge, according to a June article at ReadWrite.com.

“While we are still a long way from talking to our operating systems like they’re our friends, cognitive computing has some immediate applications in the IoT that will allow businesses to use their devices to their fullest potentials,” the article noted.

AT&T, in a white paper on the IoT, noted that the number of internet connected vehicles globally was 125 million in 2014 but is expected to grow to 1.2 billion by 2024. Vehicles can be connected in many ways through vehicle navigation, diagnostics, stolen-vehicle recovery systems, emergency-call response and other systems.

Additionally, The IoT gives fleet managers the ability to monitor exactly where every asset is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Since the actual data is stored wirelessly on the cloud, the device itself doesn’t have to have a large data storage capacity, the AT&T report noted.

Another example of The IoT is the Pokeman Go phenomenon, Wilson said.

“People click yes” on their cellphones, Wilson said. “You have to tell the company that they can see everything on your phone if you want full functionality on the app,” she said.

Wilson said there are ethical considerations when a company wants to use personal information obtained off a device.

“Can someone control your system?” Wilson asked.

Wilson said a positive side of the IoT is all the advances being rolled out.

“After someone had a health procedure, a doctor gets messages on his or her cellphone on patient updates,” Wilson said. “It makes things more convenient, but it also makes people more vulnerable.”

Ellis said that the combination of devices, such as the Fitbit on her wrist, her cellphone plus a web application to plot the sleep information, makes sense of the data received when she sleeps, doesn’t sleep or moves during the day.

Ellis said the key is to look at the intended or unintended consequences of the data being collected through the IoT.

“We need to be reflective. We are at a place where society has not been before,” Ellis said.

— Follow business reporter Charles A. Mason on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Charles Allen Mason is the business reporter for the Daily News. He is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a 1977 graduate of West Virginia University in Morgantown. In his spare time he enjoys reading, music, sports and cooking.

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