Is your smart home a secure home?

Jas Dhaliwal 14 Mar 2018

IoT devices may make our lives more convenient, but they also make our homes more vulnerable.

“Alexa, please let any would-be robbers know that I’m currently out of town and my house is sitting empty.”

“Hey Google, turn on my webcam sometime today and capture embarrassing video of me without my knowledge.”

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? The truth is, if you aren’t thinking about the security of your smart home products, these are the kinds of risks to which your home and family might be exposed.

There’s no denying the appeal of smart home devices, also known as IoT, or internet of things, devices. We’re talking about voice assistants like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home. Smart TVs. Web cameras. Lighting controls. Thermostats. Door locks. Heck, even refrigerators, coffee pots, and toothbrushes. Basically, anything with a network connection and an app that lets you remotely monitor and control the device.

The smart home category is booming, and its popularity isn’t expected to fade anytime soon. But these devices have a dark side: their popularity makes them a prime target for hackers.

“Avast sees IoT attacks as the one of biggest emerging threats in the realm of cybersecurity.”

What’s the problem?

Bringing smart products into your home also brings a variety of potential concerns. Some are basic privacy concerns: is Alexa always listening to me? Some are concerns related to location and behavior tracking. Gizmodo recently published a fascinating story called The House That Spied on Me” — a must-read for anyone who has embraced the smart home. You may be surprised to learn just how much information your smart devices can reveal about you. For instance, something as seemingly innocuous as your smart thermostat holds the secrets of your daily patterns — when you’re home and when you’re not. That info exists for anyone who knows where to look.

Then there are the more serious invasions of privacy. The same web camera you use to make sure no one is prowling around downstairs can also be used to spy on you when you’re prowling around downstairs. Are your smart locks smart enough to block an aggressive hacker, or can that front door be unlocked in a matter of seconds? And what about all those microphones? Is someone listening and gleaning personal information?

Because the smart home category is so popular, lots of companies want a piece of the pie. Many of these internet-connected devices are built by product- and service-oriented companies, not by network security experts. Security may not be their primary concern, but it needs to be yours. All it takes is one vulnerable product to put your entire home network at risk.

What’s the solution?

Here’s the good news: security-minded companies like Avast are also paying more attention to IoT devices, developing the best methods to provide the protection that consumers need.

IoT devices present different security challenges than computers and mobile devices, in that they are closed devices. You can’t load third-party security protection onto a smart TV or a webcam, as you can with a PC. Instead, Avast is looking at ways to monitor these devices’ network activity: what are they doing, who are they talking to, and how often. If that IP printer of yours suddenly starts talking to new and unusual sources over the network, that’s a big red flag that the device has been compromised.

Just as you can expect to see a lot more smart devices enter the market, you can also expect to see a new crop of security-related services designed to monitor them. In the meantime, here are five things you can do to protect your smart home right now:

  1. All of these IoT devices go through your router, so that is your first line of defense. Make sure to set it up correctly, and follow these tips:
    • Change the default login name and password.
    • Enable firewall protections.
    • Make sure to enable Wi-Fi encryption so that everyone who wants to get on your network has to enter the SSID and password.
    • If your router allows it, set up separate Wi-Fi networks for smart home products and computer/mobile devices.
    • Finally, make sure to perform any and every update that becomes available, as many of them are security-related.
  2. Research the smart products you buy. What kind of security do they use, and do the manufacturers regularly provide security patches and updates? Chose reputable brands. Again, make sure to actually perform all system updates.

  3. Turn off the remote-management function in your smart device if you don’t plan to use it. In other words, if you never check/adjust your smart thermostat or turn on the coffee maker when you’re away from home, then there’s no need to keep that function active.

  4. Turn off any microphones that you don’t use. Obviously the microphone is a crucial element of a voice assistant, but you may not need the one that’s built into your smart TV.

  5. Secure your computers and mobile devices too. These are the portals to set up and control your IoT devices, so you need to keep them password-protected and virus-free.

  6. Be careful when using open Wi-Fi hotspots. A VPN can help with that.

Protect your digital life. These simple steps will help ensure that your smart home remains a secure home.  

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