The Internet of Things (IoT) has been a topic of discussion for years and has never been more talked about than in the present. There are already tens of thousands of ingenious IoT applications and projects around the world, and the Middle East and Africa IoT market is set to reach $6.99 billion (Dh25.67 billion) in 2018 and almost double to $12.62 billion by 2021, according to latest forecasts from International Data Corporation.

Multiple factors are converging that suggest we are about to see real gains with IoT. Health care, smart buildings and cities, manufacturing, transport and automotive are all seeing initial deployments move well beyond proof-of-concept. Future-oriented firms are already using it to deepen their understanding of their own businesses, inform their strategies and create more value for their customers.

There are three main aspects that still need to be resolved in order for it to reach its full potential. These are connectivity, interoperable standards and security.

Connectivity and standards

Etisalat recently launched the first commercial 5G wireless network to fuel digital transformation and IoT, while du also plans to roll out a 5G service later this year to further strengthen IoT services in the region. No doubt, 5G will kick in commercially in a more pervasive and incremental way compared with previous generations.

Low-power technologies are developing at a high pace, making it possible for a multitude of devices and sensors to speak to each other over incredible distances. And these devices need very little human interaction once embedded, thanks to extended life cycles and remote maintenance. This all brings incredible potential for the IoT ecosystem.

Though it is probably correct to say that there are still too many IoT standards, manufacturers and providers are getting better at building interoperable systems. The final crucial factor that is too often ignored — through complexity rather than ignorance — is security.

The IoT threat landscape

We have lived through two decades of internet attacks and the past few years have seen a huge increase in data breaches, as hackers continue to get more sophisticated. With the IoT still a new concept to many, we now have a chance to protect ourselves from suffering the same large-scale data breaches that cripple companies.

There are times when the security challenge appears daunting — even for those companies with dedicated security personnel. But if you break processes down, and implement security piece by piece, everything becomes more manageable.

Implementing properly secure infrastructure has a cost, this is clear, but not taking digital security seriously can prove to be much more costly. Companies need to seriously consider what they can be exposed to, including things like device cloning, device repurpose, data manipulation or unauthorised service access. Each of these can lead to pure revenue or customer loss, ransomware incidents and brand reputation damage.

The first step towards building a more secure IoT is for companies to get a sense of their own risk profile. This will underpin everything they then do to ensure their IoT deployments are secure, with the adequate level of security.

From here they can think about:

* Introducing network segmentation — Not all IoT solutions need to be connected to the internet. In a hospital, a doctor could get real-time information from connected machines that aren’t vulnerable to hackers.

* Security by design — Product designers need to develop products that are secure from conception, and able to evolve to face emerging new threats.

* Replacing legacy products — Some devices are simply too old to be able to be managed adequately. In this case, you should likely invest in new equipment, even if there are cost implications.

* Understanding their inventory — If a new threat is detected, can you be sure which of your products are affected?

The path towards a secure IoT

Success in IoT relies on trust — the ability to trust in reliable and untampered connected devices, as well as data integrity throughout. Security must always remain at the core of everything in both present and future applications.

There will always be exploits and vulnerabilities, so companies need to view security as an ongoing matter throughout a product or service’s life cycle, rather than a one-off step in its development.

(Sherry Zameer is regional senior vice-president for IO at Gemalto.)