You’ve all seen it. Three days ago, you searched for something on Amazon – a pair of shoes, a book, a new electric toothbrush – and yesterday when you re-entered Amazon looking for something else, up popped an advertisement for the shoes. “Ah, Amazon has remembered what I was searching for,” you mutter. “I should clean out my cookies.” But then, today, while on a website unrelated to Amazon or shoes, up pops an ad for the same shoes but from a different supplier. “Whoa,” you say. “What’s happening here?”
Welcome to the Internet of Things, IoT.
Google defines the IoT as follows:
The Internet of Things (IoT) is an environment in which objects, animals or people are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.
Basically, the IoT is a connection of all things that can connect together via the internet. When you pay by credit card for your groceries in the supermarket, the details of every item you have bought go to many different databases for analysis. The supermarket wants to know what you’ve bought so as to study buying trends and restock warehouses. The credit card company is logging your purchase to make sure you are not exceeding your limit but also to track a number of other things: how much you are spending in supermarkets, petrol stations, cinemas, newsagents, and so on. Wine merchants want to know what wines you bought, and thus did not buy, and how much you are drinking between consecutive purchases. The pharmaceutical companies are logging your purchase of pain killers and anti-histamines. The instore bakery is monitoring purchase of baked-in-store bread and adjusting their output accordingly. And so it goes on but it doesn’t stop there. Vast databases now exist that can be analysed right down to the individual level to determine who we are and how we live our lives. Anything that is connected to the internet is a data gatherer and data exchanger.
If you wear a Fitbit activity tracker, every time you walk by your laptop a Bluetooth connection is established and the data gathered by the tracker is uploaded to your Fitbit account – number of paces, average heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and now, what food you’ve eaten, your weight, how much sleep you’ve had and there’s more to come with these types of wearable health monitors. All this information can and is forwarded to large databases that analyse the health features of a population – individual, local, regional, by country, by continent, world-wide. Personal information about you can be passed to your local surgery and hence down to your medical doctor. In fact, your medical doctor could also indirectly access your supermarket purchases of alcohol and tobacco and cross-correlate to spot a connection between your drinking or smoking habits and a recent rise in blood pressure, say.
If you are driving a car fitted with a satnav system, the unit knows where you are (down to a few metres), how fast you are driving, whether you are driving recklessly in a crowded city, how often you take a break during a long journey. If a data analyser discovers that you routinely break the speed limit or push through rush-hour congestion above the average speed of other cars in the neighbourhood, you may well find your insurance premium goes up next time your car insurance comes up for renewal. Your insurance company has figured out you are a high risk driver.
Anything that is connected to the internet (technically, has an IP address) is a source of data and software engineers have already figured out how to slice and dice the data. Your smart home, your connected car, your activity tracker, your browsing habits, your Apple watch, your smartphone, your webcam, your credit card swipe, … anything that connects.
This is the age of the Internet of Things, folks. Welcome and beware! This used to be the stuff of science fiction authors. Not any more.