Our Increasingly Connected World — The Internet of Things 

GAO logoCell phones, coffee makers, washing machines, and numerous other consumer and industrial products are increasingly designed to gather data, connect to the Internet, and improve efficiency or assist with decision making.

Earlier this year, our Internet of Things technology assessment and Big Bite video podcast discussed some benefits, and potential risks, of our ever more connected world.

Today’s Watchblog delves a bit deeper into how IoT is affecting consumers, communities, and national defense.

Connectivity driven by the Internet of Things

Smaller, cheaper, electronic processors and sensors have made it easier to connect almost anything to the Internet, and “smart” devices are increasingly being used to gather, communicate, and process information that has never been captured before.

Take the fitness tracker, for example. Some of these wearable devices can track users’ fitness levels, heart rate, and location—all while also telling time. Users can then store this information on their smartphone, monitor their progress, and even share their data with health care providers.

Figure 5: Example of a device-to-gateway architecture

(Excerpted from GAO-17-75)

Other wearable devices include baby clothes that monitor respiration, temperature, and activity level, and football helmets that detect and analyze impacts and notify medical staff if needed.

The rapid emergence of these and other connected devices brings the promise of new benefits, but also presents potential challenges in areas like information security and privacy.

Communities are becoming smarter

Individuals aren’t the only ones benefitting from the Internet of Things—local governments and their partners are making their communities “smarter” to improve livability, service delivery, or competitiveness.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that traffic lights stay green longer during rush hour? That’s because some lights now have sensors that collect, evaluate, and adjust to real-time traffic data—seeking to ease congestion and reducing emissions.

But becoming “smarter” isn’t easy, cheap, or fast. Communities we spoke to talked about the importance of collaboration among public, private, and academic entities to make the best use of unique expertise. To help out, the federal government brought together more than 20 federal agencies to develop a federal strategic plan and a resource guide for communities.

Communities are also using federal funds in combination with other resources—both financial and non-financial—to plan and deploy smart projects.

Figure 1: Examples of Types of Internet of Things Projects in Communities

(Excerpted from GAO-17-570)

Security in the age of IoT

When you think about smart watches, TVs, or phones, you probably don’t think “national security risk.” Well the Department of Defense does.

DOD has identified numerous security risks associated with IoT devices as well as some scenarios that could hurt their operations and personnel.

Figure 2: Notional Internet of Things (IoT) Scenarios Identified by Department of Defense (DOD)

(Excerpted from GAO-17-668)

We found that DOD’s security policies and guidance do not clearly address these security risks. For example, the agency doesn’t have sufficient guidance on minimizing the risks of smart TVs in unsecured areas or on applications installed on DOD’s mobile devices.

Updating these policies could better protect the information that DOD stores on IoT devices—and help reduce the risks to national security.

To learn more about the Internet of Things, potential benefits, and potential threats, check out our full technology assessment.


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