IoT takes control of colleges

Vast network of devices can save energy and boost convenience, but security concerns persist

The internet of things—known in acronym-speak as IoT—seems to be popping up everywhere.

Everything is getting connected. Thermostats, fitness bands, voice-controlled assistants, remotely controlled webcams, smartphones, washing machines, autonomous vehicles—the list goes on and on. Gadgets of every shape, size and function connect to the internet to gather and share massive amounts of data.

Growth forecasts suggest tens of billions of devices will be connected as spending exceeds $1 trillion by 2020, according the 2017 NMC Horizons Report for Higher Education.

The highly regarded annual report, which looks at how technologies will impact higher education over the coming half decade, predicts IoT will become widespread over the next two- to three-years. Indeed, on our campuses, this technology has been steadily evolving for years.

IoT spreading across campus

The idea of automated controls has been with us for decades. IoT devices help reduce heating and cooling budgets and have a positive impact on the environment on many campuses.

For instance, at Penn State more than 350 buildings are connected to and controlled by an automation system. This enables operators to remotely monitor and control electricity, lighting, plumbing, ventilation, air conditioning and other environmental systems from a central location, across a secure computer network.

While IoT-style solutions to facilities management are increasingly commonplace, students in residence halls now experience IoT in new and useful ways.

For example, at SUNY Binghamton in New York, students enjoy the benefits of smart laundry facilities. Student Ian Walsh says, “You can check online if there are washing machines or dryers available, and ask to receive an email when one opens up.”

At the Rochester Institute of Technology, design work is under way on new “Smart Suites” in their Global Village student housing. The school is considering door locks that can utilize a smartphone app—you would simply tap your phone on the door to unlock it.

Of course, campus safety is always a concern and IoT can play a role there too. Along these lines, the Penn State College of Engineering has partnered with ThingWorx, an IoT provider, to seek out solutions using smart phones, sensors, alarms and other devices to address campus safety concerns.

Security and privacy

As is generally the case, these evolving technologies don’t come without risks. A key challenge related to the growing universe of IoT devices is the limited focus some manufacturers and systems implementers have placed on securing the data flowing through these devices.

In one documented case (, a major university experienced significant interruptions of service as over 5,000 discrete systems made hundreds of DNS lookups across their network every 15 minutes. Like looking up a number in a phonebook, a DNS lookup sends identifying information to a requesting device.

This included devices as seemingly harmless as soda machines. A botnet spread from device to device by using default and weak passwords. Once the password was known, the malware had full control of the device and would change the password, temporarily locking network engineers out of the 5,000 systems.

On the privacy side of the equation, we have barely begun to examine the potential downside of devices that are watching, listening and recording so much of what we do. For instance, children’s dolls—equipped with wireless web access and the ability to talk—have been exposed as dangerous because hackers could easily access and control the devices.

What is there to prevent those with malicious intent from hacking their way into some of the IoT devices on our campuses?

Technology managers must be sure to closely consider privacy and security when IoT implementations are planned and delivered.

Kelly Walsh is CIO of The College of Westchester in New York.

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