Smart devices have become incredibly popular thanks to the convenience and functions that they offer. Using smart devices in your home gives you the ability to control all different sorts of functions in your home from a centralized console – automatically adjust your heating, dim your lights, lock your doors, and even automate sequences of events between different smart devices with applets from If This Then That. In the world of smart devices, what you can do is seemingly endless.
Before investing deeply into the world of smart devices, there’s an important question we have to ask ourselves – are these things even safe?
If you’re connecting anything and everything in your home to the internet, how can you prevent hackers from taking over your systems? Even worse, are voice assistants simply spying on you straight out of the box?
To get us started, here are some key terms you should be familiar with:
- Internet of Things (IoT) – This is a broad term that describes the systems of devices that are interconnected in a way that they can “talk” to each other, typically by sharing the same network.
- Smart Devices – The individual electronics inside an IoT setup such as smart security cameras, smart speakers, and smart thermostats
- Smart Homes – These are homes that combine multiple smart devices to create an IoT that is optimized for the home. Smart homes typically use a centralized console to program or automate home functions such as heating, lighting, security and even vacuuming.
- Hub – Many smart homes rely on a hub such as Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Samsung SmartThings to control their IoT setup. The hub allows your smart devices to communicate with each other and gives you access to your smart devices from a centralized device.
What Are Smart Devices?
The definition of smart devices that we gave you is quite broad, and it covers a massive variety of different gadgets and hardware – many of which can be centrally controlled from an app on your smartphone!
These devices will often use your home wifi network, though there are other technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Z-Wave, and Zigbee that are used in smart devices. For the sake of keeping things succinct in this article we won’t be going into great detail on different connectivity options, just know that not all smart devices have to rely on your home wifi network.
Under the category of smart devices, you will find options including wifi-enabled security cameras, lightbulbs that can synchronize with each other to produce different color effects or turn on and off at scheduled intervals, smart televisions that can be controlled by your voice, and even smart electric outlets that let you control your non-smart electronics!
Are Smart Devices Safe?
Now that we’ve laid down the foundation for what these devices are, we can focus on the core subject. Are these devices even safe to use? You may have heard that smart devices are being used to listen to their owners and that hackers can gain unauthorized access to smart cameras to scope out a home before breaking in.
Unfortunately, these are all very real possibilities with smart devices, particularly if they are not properly secured or if the device manufacturer includes methods for transmitting your data to their servers. While it is in the best interest of device manufacturers to secure the data they collect from you, data breaches can very well happen and if a given manufacturer has stored sensitive data collected from a smart device it is entirely possible that this data could fall into the wrong hands.
Are Smart Devices Spying On You?
As you now know, the term “smart device” covers such a wide variety of devices that it can be difficult to cover all of them. Concerns about whether or not smart devices are spying on you are likely to be centered around devices that have cameras and microphones such as smart assistants and security cameras – we will focus our attention there.
Always Listening Mode for Smart Assistants
Voice-activated smart assistants are typically activated with a “wake word” – for example, Google’s smart devices use the wake words “Ok Google” and “Hey Google”, and the wake word for Amazon’s Alexa even comes with the option to choose from a list of different “names” that you can use as wake words – Alexa, Computer, Amazon, and Echo.
In order for these devices to respond to the wake word, they need to be always listening for it. Leading smart device manufacturers allow you to turn off the always-listening mode of their devices, though this comes at the cost of one of the best conveniences of voice-activated smart devices.
If you are concerned about smart devices listening to your conversations, a key consideration is that while these devices are always listening, they are not always recording. It is the best interest of leading manufacturers of smart devices to reduce the potential for sensitive information to be leaked, so they typically only start recording a few seconds of audio after the wake word is said, just enough to capture and interpret your request before executing the desired function.
One legitimate concern about the potential for smart device spying is that it requires a great deal of trust on our part to believe that device manufacturers are doing everything they can to respect our privacy. In an effort to gain that trust these manufacturers will often allow you to explicitly view your command history and see exactly what data is being captured – that is if you trust that they are truly telling you everything, of course.
Can Smart Devices Be Hacked and Used to Spy on You?
Here lies a very real problem – not all smart devices are completely inaccessible to outsiders. Smart devices that can be accessed through an app or web interface can be a potential vulnerability if authentication measures are lackluster, such as only relying on a username and password to grant access to the devices.
The re-use of usernames and passwords by consumers creates a significant vector for unauthorized access should these login credentials be leaked in previous data breaches. Device manufacturers that do not support stronger authentication options such as requesting one-time-use security codes for logins on unfamiliar devices can make their devices easy for hackers to gain unauthorized access.
The impact of relying solely on usernames and passwords was recently seen in the case of Amazon’s “Ring” line of smart security cameras. Ring has received attention in the news after hackers gained unauthorized access to the camera’s interface, giving them full control over its features, including the ability to speak to the affected family through its speakers. Similar smart security camera hacking incidents have had children become the victims of taunting from hackers that gained access to the cameras, with one perpetrator facetiously claiming to be “Santa Claus” when speaking with the child.
The implications of security vulnerabilities granting unauthorized access to outsiders are quite serious. Had the hacker not chosen to make himself known he could have continued spying on the family for quite some time or used the Ring camera to know when the house was empty should they choose to burglarize the home.
How to Improve Smart Device Security?
While we cannot control how manufacturers of smart devices are securing their devices, there are a few general things that you can do to use these technologies in a safer way.
- Use strong and unique passwords for all of your devices.
- Store your passwords in a password manager to make using secure passwords easier.
- Strengthen your wifi network:
- Use a guest wifi network for your smart devices. If they become compromised they will be separated from your main network, mitigating the damage done.
- Enable WPA2 or WPA3 encryption.
- Keep your router’s firmware up-to-date.
- Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on the accounts that control your devices.
- Do not store sensitive information on voice assistants.
- Install the latest updates from the device manufacturer.
For better or for worse, smart devices are a trend that will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Now that you know about the potential risks that come from these devices and some methods for mitigating these risks, you can make an informed decision should you choose to take advantage of this new world of technology.
About the Author
Dale Strickland works at CurrentWare Inc, a global provider of employee productivity, compliance and data loss prevention software headquartered in Toronto, Canada.