IoTForestThe Internet of Things (IoT) is on track to land a spot on 2017’s Buzzwords to Avoid, but this is a misunderstanding. The Internet of Things isn’t just about connected toasters or watches, and to cast it that way is to do it a disservice. The wonder of IoT depends on what role you play: engineers marvel at API integration, marketers gasp at the various new lines of communication and possible advertising, sales teams dream up new use cases, and financiers inquire on how it will bring revenue. The IoT isn’t a new fad or a get-rich-quick scheme; it is already living within every industry.

The IoT is often viewed as a hurricane of attention-hungry little pieces of technology strewn about and constantly chatting. Users, consumers, and creators are intrigued by beacons and the variety of sensors used to build a complex data and communications network. Each talkative tree in this forest has an important job, from the Bluetooth beacons at a retail store following a customer’s journey and pushing relevant promotions at just the right time and place, to the heart-rate monitors keeping a hospital patient on the road to recovery. Each IoT device is successfully doing its job, but by focusing on individual pieces of tech instead of the whole forest, we’re delaying the realization of IoT’s true potential.

The dream of IoT has grown with the rise of Big Data and the support of analytics. Big Data can be terabytes of seemingly useless data points collected from billions of IoT devices; in order to grow a strong and healthy network, the data must be gathered, organized, and sorted. This new dataset can be quickly analyzed and used to predict new trends, find inefficiencies in current practices, and prepare for a better tomorrow. This is the future of our dreams. As the technology industry goes wild with new applications and purposes for IoT, we’ve hit the ground running in a million directions with dreams of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, self-driving cars, Starbucks orders instantly ready at the counter, and medical advances able to cure our worst ailments. While these dreams are wonderful, they are also flawed.

Much of the IoT race has been to be first – the first to offer smart fridges, or smart home thermostats, or predatory retail store sales, or instant updates on a patient’s healthcare status. Impressive initial sales attributable to wow factor can be quickly halted due to software bugs, discrepancies from expected location precision, or fears of being hacked.

We need to pause this race and make the real dream come true with two big upgrades. Even the biggest forests are vulnerable to fire, and these similarly complex IoT networks need roots in security. The recent widespread panic about baby monitors being hacked and livestreamed on the Internet could have been avoided. Consumers’ trust in established companies is being tested and leaving room for smaller, more innovative bodies to meet eager test consumer groups in hopes they can do better than “the big guys.” The trust in a company’s or technology’s security can take years to build and just minutes to destroy. Creators of IoT devices need to take a breath before sprinting to launch their products and consider security. Sometimes it’s not easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The second repair for IOT is developing the technology’s context awareness. The self-driving car conversation is building momentum, and mastering context-awareness is its biggest hurdle before mass adoption. These cars must be able to read all environment variables, both immediate and within relative distance, to be safe, efficient, and enjoyable. Some new vehicles currently available are able to judge distance and apply appropriate brake pressure – but imagine if the first car in a line could immediately tell cars following it about a speed change. What if an army’s front line could tell troops behind about an attack instantly through a sensor? This technology could save lives and even change history. This is the stuff to get excited about: it brings the future to today.

Currently, our IoT forest is full of saplings fighting for sunlight and wishing their roots had the strength to withstand more than a moderate breeze. To build the context-aware IoT machines we want with fast and thorough analytics of complex data, we need to ensure that these IoT devices have the security we need. This change needs to be happen at every level, from the consumer to the creators and all the roles within a business. The potential of IoT is huge and it brings substantial danger risk. Bigger than just burning toast, the danger could be remotely turning off someone’s pacemaker as demonstrated at the 2013 Black Hat conference and featured on HBO’s “Homeland.”i

Healthcare is one of the IoT’s biggest suitors. Monitoring patients, immediately updating electronic records, asset tracking, VIP assistance, and robots are changing the way healthcare operates. Sensors detecting any transmitting device can ensure that protected zones are wireless free; Bluetooth-tagged pieces of equipment will never be misplaced when they can be shown on a floor plan in real-time. A secure and context-aware IoT in healthcare is hard to argue against.

Nothing in this world is guaranteed, but there is safety in preparation. We want the fun, context-aware IoT world we’re been hearing about, but it may do more harm than good if our data and devices are openly available to any stranger with the right keystrokes.

Originally published April 2016 US Cybersecurity Magazine