Internet of Things definedWhat does the future look like to you? Does it include flying cars and meals in the form of pills? Will we no longer have diseases to worry about, or will robots be serving our every whim? Maybe it’s not quite like the Jetsons now, but thanks to the Internet of Things, that future is coming faster than you think.

In a nutshell, the Internet of Things allows anything with a WiFi connection to be connected to the Internet. This includes not only phones and computers, but things like toasters, coffee makers, cars and washing machines. All of your devices could also be connected to each other to help make your life more efficient and easier. While you’re upstairs watching TV, your washing machine downstairs could send a notification that it had finished its spin cycle and it’s time to change the load. Or after you lock up, your house alarm could tell your car to start before you leave for work.

The idea of the Internet of Things has been around since the early 1980s, although it didn’t really take root until 1999, when RFID technology, generally seen as a precursor to the IoT, was being widely studied. What’s perhaps most interesting about the IoT is the incredible array of industries it could touch or already does, including environmental monitoring, manufacturing, infrastructure management, energy management, medical/healthcare, transportation, building and home automation. Homes are already being built with smart technology, and a city in South Korea is the first of its kind to be entirely connected.

Along with technology purposes, the IoT can also be used for social science and political purposes, as people have the power to interact with each other like never before. Phil Howard from Politico writes, “The end result will not be a stream of data, it will be a tsunami of information that will offer governments and politicians overwhelming evidence about our real-world behavior, not just our attitudes and aspirations.” The ability of a government to anticipate and respond to people’s needs (or quash them) will be greater than before.

Perhaps the most obvious outcome of having all this new information is how it can be used for advertising purposes. With an avalanche of data suddenly available, advertisers can hone in on customers more than ever before, tailoring products to their daily habits and routines in real time.

With all that technology comes a price, of course. In this case, how much are we sacrificing our security and privacy? With literally everyone’s information potentially in the cloud, the threat of a breach certainly rises, along with all sorts of “what ifs.” Could cyber warfare be the new way to fight battles? What if hackers could remotely control the appliances or toys in your house and program them to harm you? Researchers have already proven they can crash a car, so what happens if you’re in it?

Another concern is the testing capabilities for all of these new devices. How can new applications be tested to prevent software bugs from potentially ruining your life? These scenarios are still mostly theoretical because the technology is so new. Many devices that could be part of the IoT or already are either aren’t available for general consumption yet or not widely used, so no one has really tried to hack into them, but security researchers have already proven they can hack many devices, and rather easily. We could see cars being the first real test market for hackers, as more and more people start buying them.

Security of course, goes hand-in-hand with privacy. Putting more and more devices online means allowing the companies who manufacture those devices into your home. It’s not really far-fetched to think that the government could spy on you even more easily than it already does now, and it has even admitted it could start doing it. Hacking is an organized, billion-dollar business, and the targets for it are going to grow exponentially. Are the security good guys equipped to fight that battle just yet?

It’s a vastly changing world, and changing at an extremely rapid pace. 2020 is coming up, and who knows what kinds of technologies will become standard by then? There is still a lot of work left to figure out the consequences of connecting so many devices online, but it’s happening as we speak. With all of the potential security and privacy issues yet to be considered, this trend is certainly one that will be watched closely by the IT industry.