Industrial Revolutions

'Internet of things' looms, but is it secure?

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Lessons for your lamp: Building the 'smarter' home

Our homes are getting smarter. Today, the "internet of things" is breathing new digital life into everything from kettles to thermostats, creating a new ecosystem of smart, interconnected devices.

The potential is huge, according to industry leaders. "This is not about technology at all," John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, said during a speech at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January. "It's about how it changes peoples' lives forever."

According to Chambers, the internet of things could add as much as $19 trillion to the economy, with Cisco also predicting 50 billion 'connected' objects by 2020.

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Consumer electronics company Belkin is developing its WeMo system to enable users to turn their electronic appliances into smart ones.

The first WeMo product, the WeMo Switch, was launched in 2012 and enables users with smartphones and tablets to have "conversations" with objects in their homes. The 'switch' is a Belkin adaptor which users plug into a conventional socket. Any appliance can then be plugged into the adaptor, and remotely controlled via a smartphone app.

"It allows you to connect to a non-connected, 'dumb' or legacy device and make it intelligent," Ohad Zeira, Director of Product Management at Belkin, told in a phone interview.

"I can then control it, turn it on and off – from my house or anywhere else in the world – as well as set it up on easy schedules. I'm starting a conversation with inanimate objects in my house," he added.

Everything from coffee machines, lamps and heaters can be turned on or off using the WeMo Switch. "You can connect anything to it as long as it plugs in with the AC plug," Zeira said.

Belkin's smart system is constantly evolving, with smart LED lightbulbs that will allow users to adust light levels using their phone, and a smart slow cooker – developed with Crock-Pot – on the horizon.

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There are however, concerns from some quarters about the security of having our homes wired up to the web. Earlier this year multiple vulnerabilities were reported in WeMo by information security research firm IOActive which, if left unsolved, could have allowed hackers to take control of users' devices and "perform malicious firmware updates".

Belkin rushed to plug these gaps, and, according to Zeira, constant vigilance is key. "These systems are very complex and there's many attack vectors that somebody can enter into a home: through your smartphone, your laptop, your router," he said.

"What we do is work with a variety of security researchers. We send them hardware, send them our code and we ask them to break it and find the holes and then we fix them before they become manifest," he added.

Just how important will the internet of things be?

"I think it will become ubiquitous," Zeira said. "I can't say whether that's in three, seven or 10 years, but eventually I think most things around us will have some connection to the internet of things. It's amazingly exciting to me. I think it could be akin to the PC revolution in changing our daily lives and our interactions with technology," he added.

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And while connected devices have the potential to turn our homes into intelligent, digitally interconnected spaces, they could also save us a trip to the dentist.

At Kolibree, CEO and co-founder Thomas Serval and his team have developed what he claims is the "world's first electric, connected toothbrush."

"It uses sonic technology to clean your teeth, and it's connected, so for the very first time in oral care history, it gives you feedback, in real time," Serval told in a phone interview.

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"It tells you whether you're brushing your teeth correctly or not, and it also gathers data for later get a better understanding of oral care hygiene and the way people brush their teeth, which is information that nobody has ever had before."

Connected to a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, and using built in sensors, the toothbrush tells users if they're brushing long enough and in the right places, and even allows for the sharing of data between patient and dentist.

According to the American Dental Association, in 2012 $111 billion was spent on dental care in the US. "By building one of the first tools that will give you preventive ways to improve oral hygiene, we believe there's a tremendous opportunity for insurers and for government to decrease the cost of oral care," Serval said.

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