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Are Smart Homes Destined to Leave Us Vulnerable?

Smart homes are definitely a jewel in the crown of Geeks everywhere and they are helping to simplify lives and open doors that were only dreamed of not so long ago. With the ability to actually speak to our homes and have basic tasks completed automatically, millions of consumers are flocking to these tech wonders.

But do they have the possibility to leave us susceptible to a takeover?

No, I don’t mean by AI, Amazon, or Alexa herself. I’m talking about those people out there that are always looking for ways to take what you have.

First off, I’m no expert on smart devices by any means. Let me make that clear. I’m just spouting thoughts and ideas here and chances are, some of these fears may have already been addressed. But as these thoughts hit my little Geek brain and I always need something to write about, I thought it might make a good article.

So here we go.

‘Smart’ Thoughts

Even though I’m a proud, self-ascribed Geek and I love just about anything techie, I’m also very, very slow to assimilate new trends into my life. 

I’ve always been that way. When everyone was getting excited about DVDs, I kept buying VHS… at least until I no longer could. I used a flip phone until about 3 years ago and the only reason I gave it up was because I worked for Apple and with a massive discount, it seemed like a good idea to own at least one of the products I helped support. 

I also still use my Xbox 360 quite frequently.

Anyway, the point is that I bide my time before jumping on any new “bandwagons.” While many of you have used Amazon Echo, Alexa products, and smart home setups for quite some time now, I just received my first Echo Dot and smart plug.

That very same day, I saw a commercial for a new smart home security system with a home instructing Alexa to tell the system to set the alarm.

And the two events immediately got me thinking about all the possibilities.

Not all of them good.

The Fun Side of Smart Homes

Sure, the ability to have Alexa turn on the bedroom light, fans, and television at just a single command at bed time is awesome as hell. I’m always using my phone to set timers, convert measurements or monetary denominations, and to text by voice, so having a centralized gadget that helps me with that is definitely a plus.

Of course, as with any new toy it’s fun to play with Alexa and ask her dirty things, get her to tell jokes, and get quick answers to trivia questions, etc. However, it’s the smart appliances and smart plug accessories where the real fun begins.

A simple command to turn on the oven? Fill up the dog bowl or measuring cup with the precise amount needed? Crank up the AC, dim the lights, and turn on your favorite CD just by asking Alexa to do it?

Yeah, I can see the draw there.

And there’s a lot more to the smart home setup these days, and a lot more to come. According to data from Plume, currently there are an average of 18 devices per household and by 2022 this will likely reach 31 devices.

Our houses are on the way to becoming as smart as our phones.

That kind of scares me.

Welcome to the Dark Side. Yes, There ARE Cookies, But…

Like I said above, I’m no expert on these things. Aside from having an oven that makes it pretty hard to burn cookies and a house wired for a rock concert anytime I want it, I’ve yet to push the boundaries on continuing the “education” of my dwelling. Because I’ve seen a couple of issues with Alexa itself and the addition of smart devices intended to simplify our lives even more makes me really nervous about the direction we are going.

As it stands, from what I understand and have witnessed, any Alexa device will respond to any human voice that says the proper “wake word,” which is generally “Alexa.” It’s just a matter of knowing what is set up.

While a visitor may add joke items to your shopping list or change the thermostat settings, an uninvited guest could do a lot more damage. 

Think about it. You’re away for the day, working to make the money that paid for those smart devices, and someone breaks in. Now, if you have an alarm, you’re probably thinking “neener, never, never.” However, what if that robber knows you? What if they’ve heard you say, “Alexa, have ADT disarm the alarm” or even your simple “trigger” of “Alexa, I’m home.”

What if you don’t have an alarm?

“Alexa, order 20 pizzas to be delivered at 7pm.”

How about a burglar with a mean streak?

“Alexa, turn the heater to 92 please.”

And if they know you?

“Alexa, when is Matthew’s next appointment?”

“Alexa, what is Matthew’s work address?”

The list goes on and on and, depending on how integrated you have your smart home, the depth of intrusion can grow exponentially.

Then there’s the even darker side.

What if someone accesses your network through a smart device for a ransomware attack? Demanding a ransom, usually to be paid in cryptocurrency, in order to get your smart home system working again. 

And remember, there’s absolutely no assurances that they will actually restore your access once you pay. Your home is hijacked and you’re at the mercy of the perpetrator.

If you’ve shared passwords or financial information with your “digital assistant,” they could be exposed in these scenarios.

Having alarm systems, bank accounts, shopping apps, and other day to day items might be convenient to have connected, but I can’t help thinking of the possible downsides.

Our homes are our castles and we expect them, and their contents, to be safe. But the fact is, according to 2017 FBI crime statistics, every minute of every day in America there are about three home burglaries. Adding that up, it’s 3,757 a day.

While smart homes definitely aren’t going anywhere, I think everyone should stop and consider basic security. Just as you do for your computers and bank accounts.

9 Security Tips for Your Smart Home & IoT Devices

While this definitely isn’t all that you should do in order to secure your smart home and IoT (Internet of Things) devices, these tips will definitely help make your smart home more secure.

  • Consider using a different wake word. Most devices have several other options such as “Computer.”
  • Change ALL default usernames and passwords. Trust me, the bad guys have pages and pages and pages of default login info that they’re just dying to use against you. So don’t let them catch you being lazy.
  • Use strong, unique, complex passwords made up of letters, numbers, and symbols. You should also consider using two-factor authentication (TFA/2FA) wherever you can.
  • Check all IoT settings. Many of them come with default privacy and security settings that either only benefit the manufacturer, or could be used by outside actors to access the device.
  • Disable unused features. Many devices will have features like ‘remote access’ enabled by default. Turn any features off that you are not going to utilize.
  • Keep all iOT device software/firmware updated.
  • Use strong encryption on Wi-Fi. Strongly consider using a strong encryption method such as WPA2 and this will help keep your network more secure.
  • Name your router. As it can identify the make and model, don’t leave the name that the manufacturer gave it. You also don’t want to identify your family name or address. Nothing personal.
  • Utilize a Guest Network so that your main Wi-Fi account, the one all of your IoT devices are on, stays private.

Being smart about our smart homes and IoT devices is something we have to start practicing NOW. All too many individuals and businesses alike were all too slow on the uptake when they moved to the internet to begin with, and we all know how that worked out.

Take care with what you give your digital assistance access to. Be smart with passwords and setups. 

Be smart so your smart home doesn’t end up hitting you where it really smarts… in the bank account.

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