What is the Smart Home?
No longer the stuff of science fiction, the last few years has seen an explosion in the number of household devices that can be connected to the internet. Just a few examples include:
- Home security: Want to monitor your pet whilst you're out? Or capture images of burglars? With modern CCTV systems you can. You can also buy smart door locks that delivery drivers can open, or smart doorbells that allow you to see & talk to visitors when you're not at home. Smart burglar alarms can even be set & managed remotely now too.
- Childrens toys: Whilst toys were once just simple dolls or wooden trains, these days they can connect to the internet to allow parents to interact remotely, to record the child, or to update the toy's features.
- Heating systems: Phone apps can now remotely turn modern heating systems on & off, or be used to set a heating schedule. Sensors even know when you're not in the house & turn the heating off automatically.
- Printers: Long gone are the days of needing a cable to connect your computer to a printer - now you just connect both to the house wi-fi and send print jobs remotely.
- Kitchen appliances: Want to turn your cooker on remotely so it's ready to cook as you get back from work? Or see what's in your fridge whilst you're out food shopping? Now you can!
- Light bulbs: Light bulbs can be set to turn on & off on a schedule - useful if you're away on holiday. You can also dim them using your phone, or even change the colour!
Manufacturers & entrepreneurs are coming up with new ideas all the time - the devices listed here are just the tip of the iceberg with more being launched all the time. Whilst many of the devices available do have real-world practical uses, some seem suspiciously like a case of "just because we can" (does the world really need an internet connected toaster?!).
It's worth noting too the overlap with the phrase the "Internet Of Things" ("IOT") that you might sometimes hear. This has a similar meaning to Smart Homes but is much broader in scope and includes all internet connected devices, such as self driving cars. Smart home devices are just one type of IOT device.
What are the risks?
Some of the main risks with modern smart homes are to do with our privacy. Always-on voice activated assistants are now more popular than ever, whilst CCTV and internet-connected cameras built into our TVs or games consoles continue to keep an eye on many our living rooms too.
When these work properly they're perfectly safe and secure, but that's not always the case. Just a few cases where it's gone wrong in the past includes:
- An Amazon Alexa user was sent 1700 voice recordings of a stranger, whilst another couple had their conversation recorded by Alexa and sent to a random person;
- Some baby monitors and home CCTV systems have been found to be easily hackable;
- More than 2 million voice recordings of users of CloudPets toys were leaked in 2017;
- The childs toy manufacturer VTech were hacked and a database of millions of children's personal details was leaked.
Smart home devices don't look anything like normal computers, so it's all too easy to forget about security issues when buying & installing them. But whether it's allowing hackers access into our computers, or burglars access into our homes, attackers are continuously finding new ways to attack our smart gadgets:
- Smart home devices are already being exploited by hackers to send out phishing emails or to attack websites - even a whole country was once taken offline using hacked webcams.
- Over the years researchers have found numerous ways to break "smart" locks and alarms that are often used to secure homes. The burglar of the future won't need to climb drainpipes to find open windows anymore!
- Poorly designed gadgets can also be exploited by hackers to reveal your home wifi password, giving them access to your network and allowing them to snoop on everything you do.
As the smart home market matures, the level of security being built into these products is thankfully increasing all the time. Manufacturers still have a long way to go however, so in the meantime follow the steps below to protect yourself.
How can we protect ourselves?
The issues raised above can sound scary - who wants strangers to be able to watch us watching tv? - but there are some easy ways we can reduce the risks and protect ourselves.
1) Know what you're buying
Many traditional products are now being made "smart", whether by adding voice activated controls, or internet connectivity to receive software updates.
Even items that you might not expect to be "smart" sometimes are, or they may have features you're not expecting. Some televisions come with front-facing cameras or microphones for voice activation, whilst you may also not be expecting some childrens toys to be internet enabled.
It's an unfortunate feature of modern life that many devices now come with "smart" features as standard even if we don't want them, so do your research before buying. Look closely for any labels such as "internet enabled", "interactive", or "smart technology".
2) Do your research
When you're considering purchasing anything that can connect to the internet, it can be worth a quick internet search to see if there's any known issues with the product. Search for the name of the item (put quotes around it if it's several words) along with the word "vulnerability" or "privacy issue", for example:
The makers of the popular Firefox web browser publish a useful list of different popular smart home products, detailing what capabilities (eg a camera or microphone) each one has.
As of yet there are no widely adopted certifications to look for, although there are efforts underway to establish these.
3) Secure the devices & your home WiFi network
One of the risks with poorly secured smart gadgets is that they can allow attackers access onto your wifi network. Try to prevent this by:
- Ensuring your home wifi network is set up securely;
- Changing any default passwords on the gadgets themselves, as well as on any linked online accounts that the manufacturers may provide;
- Keeping your devices up to date where possible - follow the device's instructions for how to do this.
A further step you can take for additional security - although not feasible for everyone - is to run all your smart home devices on a seperate wifi network from your computer(s). Some wifi routers allow you to create separate networks without needing a second internet connection - ask a technical friend to see if your router offers this.
4) Turn off any features you don't need
Not every feature on a smart gadget is always needed. If possible, go into the settings and disable any features that you don't use (for some devices this might be done via a connected smartphone app - see the device's instruction booklet for details).
The old fashioned way of disabling features can be even more effective. Do you really need that camera on your TV? Cover it with a bit of tape if not!
The less that each device knows about you, and the fewer other devices that each gadget can talk to, the smaller that the security & privacy risks become. So for devices that talk to each other, be careful about which ones you connect together. Only link your weighing scales to Alexa if you're happy for Amazon to know how much you weigh, for example.
And as well as disabling features, why not just turn the whole gadget off when not in use? Both Alexa and Google smart speakers have a button to turn the listening function off which can be useful when having sensitive discussions nearby.
5) Don't forget any connected online services
Many devices come with linked online accounts, either to allow you to modify settings or to access features (such as remote viewing of CCTV images). These accounts can be a favourite way in for hackers. Always check what online services any device comes with, and ensure you create strong passwords and review the account settings too.
For your Google and Alexa smart speakers, your Google & Amazon accounts will allow you to access your old recordings. Regularly reviewing and deleting old recordings will again reduce the risk of a privacy breach, but do bear in mind that deleting old recordings may cause the device to "unlearn" some of what it knows about your preferences.