The Internet of Things: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament

From clothes to cars, fridges to farm animals, we now live in a world where almost anything – everyday objects, animals or people - can be connected to the internet.

This “Internet of Things”, where billions of devices can talk directly to each other without needing to interact with human beings, could potentially transform the world around us. Connected smoke alarms could set lights flashing and automatically open doors. Traffic lights could monitor and react to traffic flow. And as the technology develops, new applications will emerge that we can’t even predict.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is still at a very early stage. However, some applications are already proving useful.

For example, in the Netherlands, 25 local authorities use ‘smart bins’ to optimise waste collection by sending a warning when they are getting full.

This means refuse collectors can avoid unnecessary journeys. In one local authority the bins have saved around £72,000 and cut emissions by 18% in the course of a year.

In Toronto, smart traffic lights that process local traffic information have reduced delays by up to 40 percent and travel times by 26 percent.

There are around 14 billion objects connected to the internet today. By 2020 this figure could increase to anything from 20 billion to 100 billion. Industry predicts revenues ranging from hundreds of billions to trillions of pounds, over the next 5-10 years.

The UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) has said that the IoT has the potential to have a greater impact on society than the first digital revolution. 

However, he also pointed out that emerging technologies are subject to hype: technology analysts Gartner suggest that the Internet of Things is currently at the ‘peak of inflated expectations’.

Several questions need to be addressed for the IoT to reach its full potential:

How will the ‘things’ talk to each other?

In most cases this will be via wireless network. There are various technologies available, such as wi-fi, Bluetooth, 3G and 4G.

However, they all use different communications protocols: a system that uses wi-fi will not necessarily be able to talk to one that uses Bluetooth. Unless industry agrees common standards, the full potential of the Internet of Things may never be realised.

There are many initiatives underway to find a solution, but no consensus has been reached. What’s more, in choosing any one network, manufacturers risk committing themselves to a technology that may become redundant.

Wireless networks use electromagnetic spectrum to exchange data, a valuable resource used for navigation, broadcasting and communications services.

The Internet of Things will increase the demand for spectrum. In a recent stakeholder consultation, the communications regulator Ofcom said that in the short to medium term this demand could probably be accommodated. In the longer term, however, more flexible approaches to spectrum usage will need to be found.

Who can see the data?

The devices making up the Internet of Things will harvest vast quantities of data. Who does it belong to? And how should it be protected against unauthorised access? 

For example, the UK aims to install smart electricity and gas meters in every home and small business by 2020. Consumers will be able to monitor their energy usage and suppliers will be able to manage energy demands better.

But concerns have been raised about whether these meters could be used to monitor consumers’ lifestyles and pass information on to third parties.

While measures have been put in place to give consumers control over what data they share, there are still concerns that the data could be used in ways that infringe privacy.

How secure is the Internet of Things?

The IoT will give rise to large numbers of devices. This means that traditional approaches to security (such as running software upgrades) may not be practical to implement. 

There have already been examples of hackers gaining access to data from webcams, baby monitors, CCTV cameras and even fridges (which were used to send spam e-mails).

Security researchers have even shown that it is possible to breach some medical devices and cars, although this would require specialist expertise and equipment. The communications networks over which devices will talk to each other need to be robust and the data kept secure.

Who is responsible?

If a system malfunctions, who is to blame? Is it the user, the manufacturer, or the person who installs the system? This is just one example of an area where the Internet of Things is likely to create new regulatory challenges.

From 2004 to 2013, there were nearly 22,000 new patents published relating to the IoT. The number of applications has increased by almost 40% each year, compared to only 6% across all technologies.

In 2014 the Government announced extra funding of £45 million on IoT technology. The Chief Scientific Adviser believes that the UK is well placed to be among the emerging world leaders in reaping the benefits from Internet of Things technologies and services.

 

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