What is the internet of things and what does it mean for transport and operational safety?

Graphic of connected household items and technology representing the internet of things

What is the internet of things?

The internet of things refers to physical objects that are connected to the internet – and sometimes to each other. Some are called smart devices – such as fitness wearables, smart TVs or connected home appliances like lights and heating systems. Smart devices can make our lives easier by simplifying or automating tasks. Companies also use smart systems and devices to deliver their products and services.

How is it relevant to transport?

Technology is increasingly used for operational tasks.

A modern train’s on-board operational systems are controlled digitally. Digital operational systems can monitor on-board conditions, detect faults or collect data such as speed information in real-time. They might change a signal aspect or control a train’s speed. They can only do this because they are remotely connected.

Typically, operational technology (OT) and IT do not share a connection through the internet. People often think this means they are protected by a so-called ‘air gap’, but ‘air gaps’ can be bridged, which would expose systems to new threats. Increasingly, both OT and IT are being connected too.

What safety concerns could there be?

With more connectivity comes increased risk of cyber attacks – when someone hacks into a network, maybe to damage it in some way. An attack could prevent a system from operating as it should, or steal data. Imagine it was a system that controlled a train’s speed or a signal, and it’s easy to see the threat to safety.

It’s not just about computer glitches or deliberate attacks. Sometimes just working with these systems creates vulnerabilities. Maybe you need to plug your laptop into a train’s OT to undertake maintenance. You’ve created a connection between it and your IT – and any mistakes or errors could create problems, or you could introduce malware (harmful software) unintentionally.

What can I do?

If something doesn’t feel right when you are using any digital systems or technology, trust your gut and tell someone. Like any other safety risk, if it’s not addressed, it could lead to real harm. You might be the only one aware of it, so don’t stay silent. Make sure you share what’s concerning you – whether that’s with your manager or supervisor directly, through internal channels where you work, or by coming to CIRAS.

It might seem minor and you might not understand what’s happening, but it’s best to raise an alert. Digital safety and security issues can have serious consequences in our interconnected world.

Find out more

Safe and secure: cyber security and digital safety for safer rail – a blog by Dr Emma Taylor