Challenges put by the ubiquity of IoT devices


Aad Vredenbregt owns and runs Valoli.

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More than 16 years after the term’s first appearance, it’s still hard to find a comprehensive definition of the term “Internet of Things.” Around 2010, it started to gain popularity, replacing or supplementing “machine-to-machine” (M2M) communication.

That year, McKinsey wrote: “The physical world itself is becoming a type of information system. In what’s called the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects – from roadways to pacemakers – are linked through wired and wireless networks, often using the same Internet Protocol that connects the Internet.”

In that same period, market research company Gartner included “the Internet of Things” in its annual hype cycle for emerging technologies for the first time. Still, the IoT didn’t get widespread attention for some time and the concept only got public recognition by January 2014, when the IoT was a major theme at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Only by 2016 had the IoT become one of the most widely used concepts among tech communities, startup owners, as well as business tycoons.

An important facilitator in developing a functional IoT was IPv6’s step to increase address space. In addition, multilayer technologies were developed to manage and automate connected devices, so-called IoT platforms. They help bring physical objects online and contain a mixture of functions like sensors and controllers, a gateway device, a communication network, data analyzing and translating software and end-application services.

Although the Internet of Things was initially associated with wearables, the number of applications has risen exponentially thanks to the convergence of cloud computing, mobile computing, embedded systems, big data, low-priced hardware and technological advances. Now, the IoT covers factories, retail environments and logistics, offices, home automation, smart cities and (autonomous) vehicles. It provides an endless supply of opportunities to interconnect devices and equipment.

Thus, the IoT is forcing existing companies into new business models and facilitating startups around the world. It offers enormous business opportunities, while at the same time creating potential security problems, as well as (asset) management challenges by its sheer numbers. The ubiquity of IoT devices in public and private environments has contributed to the aggregation and analysis of enormous amounts of data. How will we manage the explosion of IoT devices that sit all over the place, and the never-ending data streams that flow from those endpoints into the cloud?

Today’s influx of IoT devices, fueled by AI, blockchain and 5G technologies, has the effect of a digital tsunami. As the numbers keep growing, we should manage and secure each of these devices and the data they generate. If we don’t know what’s being connected to the digital environment, then we simply can’t manage those things. If we don’t know devices exist or don’t know their specifications, we won’t be able to bring them under control for monitoring and protection.

Last January, a hacker published on a forum a massive list of Telnet credentials for more than 515,000 Internet of Things devices. The list included each device’s IP address, along with a username and password for the Telnet service. The list was compiled by simply scanning the entire internet for devices that were exposing their Telnet port. The hacker then tried factory-set usernames and passwords or easy-to-guess password combinations.

There’s heterogeneous usage of IoT devices. While there may be little or no information available about device ownership, we need proper administration on status, functionality and location of each device. And not only within the enterprise domain. Just think about all devices installed in public spaces in the Netherlands: traffic surveillance, air quality measurement, safety cameras and so on.

The IoT world needs rigid asset management programs. As more and more devices become connected through digital supplements, we should develop the capability to effectively manage, deploy and secure them. Whether the device is a smart vending machine, a safety device, a doorbell cam, a smoke alarm or a sensor in a production machine.