Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: The Internet connects things in smart factories and everyday life

With the help of smart devices and a few simple clicks, individuals in so-called smart homes can regulate the temperature in certain rooms, play music, dim the lights, and even open or close windows or doors. This all sounds very smart. But is it really so?

Do you know how this technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), works? How does it connect different things and devices to each other and the internet? IoT is one of the future technologies and part of the fourth industrial revolution, which is supposed to make our work and way of life more manageable. However, as early as 2015, the European Parliament pointed out that “the IoT also poses important challenges to society”, especially data protection.

What is the Internet of Things, and how does it work?

The term “Internet of Things” was coined by computer scientist Kevin Ashton in 1999 when he suggested that radio frequency identification (RFID) chips be installed on certain products to track them in the supply chain. He sensibly included the then ‘hot’ word internet in his proposal, and interest in this technology soon began to grow.

The Internet of Things (IoT) merges physical and virtual worlds, creating smart environments. The European Commission states on its website that the Internet of Things represents the next step towards the digitisation of our society and economy, where objects and people are interconnected through communication networks and report about their status and the surrounding environment.

As we mentioned, the IoT is already changing how we live and work today. From soil moisture sensors optimising farmers’ yields to thermostats and thermometers. Billions of networked physical ‘smart’ objects worldwide, on city streets, in homes and hospitals, are constantly collecting and exchanging data over the internet, giving them a certain level of digital intelligence and autonomy.

According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report, there already are more connected devices than people in the world. By 2025, it is predicted that 41.6 billion devices will capture data on how we live, work, move through our cities, and operate and maintain the machines we depend on. The digital transformation underway due to new technologies of the future, including robotics, blockchain technology, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence, is known as the fourth industrial revolution, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of these technologies.

The Internet of Things (IoT) merges physical and virtual worlds, creating smart environments.
The Internet of Things (IoT) merges physical and virtual worlds, creating smart environments.

You could say that the role of the Internet of Things during the pandemic was invaluable. According to the WEF report, “IoT applications such as connected thermal cameras, contact tracing devices and health-monitoring wearables are providing critical data needed to help fight the disease, while temperature sensors and parcel tracking will help ensure that sensitive COVID-19 vaccines are safely distributed”.

In addition to healthcare applications, IoT has helped make COVID-disrupted supply chains more resilient, automated activities in warehouses and on factory floors to help promote social distancing and provide safe remote access to industrial machines.

Examples of the use and future of the IoT

At this time, connected devices can be divided into three areas: consumer IoT, enterprise IoT and public space IoT. Businesses can use the Internet of Things, among other things, to optimise supply chains, manage inventory, and improve customer experience. While smart consumer devices, such as the Amazon Echo speaker, are already heavily present in homes due to the prevalence of low-cost and low-power sensors.

Some cities have been using IoT technology for more than a decade to rationalise everything, from water meter readings to traffic flow. “In New York City, for example, every single building (so more than 817,000) was retrofitted with a wireless water meter, starting back in 2008, which replaced the manual system where you had to walk up to a meter read the numbers and generate bills that way,” explains Jeff Merritt, the World Economic Forum‘s head of IoT and Urban Transformation.

He added that many cities now leverage license plate readers, traffic counters, red light cameras, radiation sensors and surveillance cameras to manage day-to-day operations. In medicine, however, the Internet of Things can help, among other things, improve healthcare through real-time remote patient monitoring, robotic surgery, and devices such as smart inhalers.

The range of possible IoT applications is limited only by the human imagination. Such technology could promote more efficient use of natural resources, the construction of better smart cities or the development of clean and affordable alternative energy sources. Smart roads could connect to autonomous vehicles, thus improving driver safety and optimising traffic flow.

Like most things and technologies, IoT technologies, with all the benefits, can be misused.
Like most things and technologies, IoT technologies, with all the benefits, can be misused.

But… what about security?

Like most things and technologies, IoT technologies, with all the benefits, can be misused. Potential risks include security and privacy issues, cybercrime, surveillance at work, home, or public spaces and control of mobility and expression.

The WEF report identifies a “governance gap” that needs to be addressed between potential risks and society’s efforts to safeguard against these risks through laws, industry standards, and self-governance approaches. “Effective technology governance mitigates risks and reduces the potential harms to society while also helping to maximise the technology’s positive impacts.”

The European Union is actively addressing these potential risks. The European Commission has written on its website that it is working to ensure more robust and resilient security frameworks for IoT devices and the networks they are a part of. “IoT devices play a key role in ensuring the resilience of networks and keeping data private and secure. But the increasing trend in the complexity of cybersecurity threats brings a need for more robust security frameworks for IoT devices and networks.”

To address this issue, the Commission presented a comprehensive Cybersecurity Strategy in the Digital Decade in December 2020, outlining a path towards a widespread Internet of Secure Things. The security cluster of IoT projects addresses the shortcomings of devices and networks. It does so by developing secure and modular frameworks that can be integrated into new and existing solutions for assisted living, healthcare, manufacturing, food supply, energy, and transport.

The security cluster consists of eight projects, amounting to €40 million (around €5 million each) in EU funding. According to the Commission, the projects have already produced noteworthy results in target sectors. Although the applications are specialised, the open-source modular development approach used by the projects allows the modules to be reused in other solutions for a broader spectrum of applications.

In addition, on January 20th, 2022, the European Commission published the findings of its competition sector inquiry into the consumer Internet of Things (IoT). The final report and its accompanying Commission staff working document identify potential competition concerns in the rapidly growing markets for IoT related products and services in the European Union.

There are four main areas of potential concern. The first area is certain exclusivity and tying practices concerning voice assistants and practices limiting the possibility to use different voice assistants on the same smart device. The second is the position of voice assistants and smart device operating systems as intermediaries between users on one side and smart devices or consumer IoT services on the other side. This position, combined with their crucial role in generating and collecting data, would allow them to control user relationships.

The Commission also noted concerns about the extensive access to data supplied by providers of voice assistants. Access to and accumulating large amounts of data allows voice assistant providers to improve their market position and leverage adjacent markets more easily. The fourth area is the lack of interoperability in the consumer IoT sector due to the prevalence of proprietary technology.

Author: Rok Žontar

Keywords: IoT, European Commission, technology, security.


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament. 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.