How to keep your smart home secure

By Adam | How To
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If you ever go to a house party, you’ll often see people gather around a Google Home (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned), Amazon Echo (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned), or some other smart speaker. The music would be booming from Spotify. 

Or, if not music, Google Assistant, Siri, or Alexa would be churning out jokes or quizzing everyone around it with AI-generated pop-culture questions. 

There’s no denying it. Technology has successfully permeated into our daily lives. It subtly started with the smartphone that most of us carry around in our pockets. Now, it’s in our speakers, bedroom lights, TVs, and even refrigerators.

Smart homes are no longer just a concept, they’ve become a reality. They’re no longer in the realm of early adopters and tech enthusiasts, they’ve become mainstream.

In fact, if you look at 2019 alone, there were over 120 million smart devices sold worldwide and this number is increasing year-on-year (source Statista).

Some home buyers even cite the smartness of a home as a basis for buying decisions. But is it really something that we should consider as a benefit? Or do the cons outweigh the pros?

Can convenience really be worth leaving precious data on you and your family vulnerable to hacks?

Maybe we totally avoid these vulnerabilities so we can use our connected devices with a bit more peace of mind?

The doubled edged sword that is the smart home

Smart speakers are one of the first smart devices that people buy and then we branch out from there and we slowly begin to accumulate even more connected products. 

It’s weirdly addictive, accumulating these things. Successfully automating something gives you a high like no other.  There’s a sense of achievement from seeing the garden lights turn on when you scheduled it to. 

There’s literally a smart device for everything these days, including a device to feed your pet, such as this PetSafe (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned) Automatic Dog and Cat Feeder on Amazon.  A few clicks and it should be at your doorstep in a couple of days.

For the most part, it’s a boon to human existence. 

Who doesn’t want to come home from work to a spotless floor cleaned by the Roomba (Amazon, #CommissionsEarned)? Thanks to this amazing invention, sweeping the floor is one less thing that we have to worry about.

With enough connected devices, hopefully, we’ll be free of things to worry about; at least in our own homes so we can concentrate on more important things like spending time with our family. 

But, like most things, there are two sides to this coin.

All of these connected devices that aim to make life more convenient can introduce vulnerabilities. Your streaming service’s login credentials, for example, can easily get hacked by logging into security-compromised streaming sticks or other devices. 

While there’s very little damage if the hackers use your account to watch The Greatest Showman 52 times, you must remember that you pay for that account using your credit card. If your account has been compromised, your credit card data must have been hacked too.

The type of hell that unsecured IoT devices can give you is not confined to financial matters either.

Smart cameras designed to protect your home can also be turned against you. In one case, ABC News reports hackers were able to get into a smart nanny cam inside a child’s room.

The Importance of Securing Your Smart Home

Securing the connected devices in your home is as important locking your doors. It may be harmless if you forget to do it for a few days but when ill-intentioned people pass by and notice that you haven’t been proactive in securing them, you’d wish that you had done it. 

In short, not being an active participant in your smart home’s security is equivalent to keeping your doors wide open and providing a welcome mat for hackers.

Smart devices store vast amounts of data on you and your family. Your robot vacuum, for example, has a map of your floor plan embedded in its system. It uses this data to be able to clean every nook and cranny that it can get to. 

Your smart speaker stores credit card information so you can order conveniently next time you have a pizza craving; your smart thermostat has your schedule, and your smart lights know when you’re not at home. All of this data is stored either inside these smart devices themselves or on the cloud; both of which are susceptible to hacking. 

In the digital age, data is the new gold. Companies mine it to anticipate a need so they can think ahead and find ways to fill it. Hackers, on the other hand, steal it.

How To Keep Your Smart Home Secure

Bringing an IoT device home with you and connecting it to your home network is like giving someone keys to your home. You don’t just give keys to someone willy nilly, you get to know them first. 

This means doing your homework by reading the labels, checking the instructions, and even carrying out some research on the manufacturer.

Only after you’ve done these basic things, can you get down to business and actually start trying to secure your device and network.

There are two main vulnerabilities that you’re going to have to look out for. 

One is the Wi-Fi network and the second is the connected device itself. 

Hackers can get into either one of these channels and slowly make their way towards full control of your entire system.

Perhaps the most important and effective way to secure your smart home is via the network. 

This is because it’s what connects everything to the internet and to each other. It’s like an intricate spider web in the sense that if a single string is to break, the integrity of the whole structure is affected.

But, securing the devices themselves is just as important. As we’ve said before, if hackers break into one of them, they can slowly work their way up to gain full control of your system if they wanted to.

Google Home

Secure Your Wi-Fi Network

Connected devices in smart homes are usually linked together via one Wi-Fi network. This means if hackers gain access to the network, all of the devices are already compromised. Naturally, securing the network is one of the most important things you can do to defend against hackers.

Change Network Name and Password

The first step towards enhancing network security is to change the default network name and password. Out of the box, routers usually have a default name and password installed on the network. 

This is the same for several millions of other routers manufactured by the same company. This means that if you leave the default network name and password, virtually anyone who can type a Google query can break into your system and do damage.

Add a Guest Wi-Fi Network

Furthermore, you can add another layer of security by adding a guest Wi-Fi network to your router. This way, you’re not unnecessarily exposing your network to compromised devices that your guests might unwittingly use on it. 

Most routers already have this feature so you don’t have to add any peripherals to your system.

Hide Your Network

Another way is to hide your network altogether. This is another feature that most routers already have. By doing this, hackers wouldn’t even know that you have a network. 

Hackers can’t hack into something they don’t know exists.

Dedicate an Entire Network to IoT

You can also try using a whole different network for your connected devices. This greatly reduces the most common ways that hackers use to get into your smart home.

Essentially, you’re connecting your devices through a network within a network. This is a pretty advanced set-up so hackers are going to have a harder time breaking through it.

It’s a two-router set-up where router A is the one connected to the internet, and router B is connected to all the IoT devices in the house and to router A. 

If, for example, hackers get access to router A which is connected to the internet, hackers only have access to that particular network. If they want to specifically break into your smart devices, they’re going to have to break into router B which is the conduit for router A and the smart devices.

The reverse should also be true in the sense that if hackers break into one of the smart devices, they’re only going to have access to the other smart devices connected via router B.

Use Unique Passwords for Each Device

Passwords are your first line of defense when it comes to digital security. That’s why every single device, from your smartphone to your smart speaker, gives you some sort of password protection.

However, passwords are one of the most basic forms of digital security so it’s not perfect. It can, for example, get hacked by brute force attacks. 

To minimize the effects of this type of hack, you should use different passwords for each connected device that you own. This should isolate the compromised device and give you time to secure the rest of your home from further hacks.

It’s also important to change passwords routinely. 

Hackers can be patient. 

They may already have access to your devices but aren’t doing anything with it yet. They might just be waiting for a better time to attack so they can exploit more data. 

Changing passwords frequently should thwart these kinds of attacks.

Black Amazon Echo On Table

Use 2-Step Authenticators Apps on Your Phone

Smart devices are usually accessed through an app on our phone. If you’re lucky, these apps can have a two-step authentication process that you can toggle on.

Enabling this would mean that before anyone can access your device, they’re going to have to input a single-use code that will be sent to your phone. This way, you know when someone is trying to gain access to your connected devices.

Keep Your Device Software and Firmware Up-To-Date

Manufacturers are more and more afraid of selling devices that can easily get hacked. In today’s climate where data privacy is a hot topic, a hackable device tends not to sell very well. 

For this reason, more and more devices are supplied with regular security updates for free.

They usually come in the form of new firmware or software so it’s important to keep your devices updated. This helps in keeping your devices safe from new viruses that can be transmitted and spread through your entire network.

In a lot of these connected devices, updates can only be downloaded if the device is already registered. So, it’s important to register your device on the device manufacturer’s website as well.

Unplug Devices When They’re Not Being Used

Hackers can’t take advantage of devices that aren’t powered up. So, turning off unused devices when not in use should help in keeping them from getting hacked.

Going on a long vacation? Then maybe you can unplug your smart TV, speakers, and vacuums until you get back.  Not only will this help stop your network being compromised, you’ll save on your electricity bill as well. 

Although, it’s important to note that this can’t be said for other devices that are constantly in use such as security cameras and video doorbells.

Avoid Accessing Your Smart Home from Public Wi-Fi

Whilst it can be tempting to turn on your home air conditioner using the coffee shop Wi-Fi from a couple of blocks away, it’s generally not a good idea to do so. Public Wi-Fi is a hotbed for hackers and accessing your home network through them can leave them vulnerable to attacks.

Instead, access your smart home network through your own LTE or 5G if you have to. It’s a much safer way to access your home network this way because it avoids potential threats connected to public Wi-Fi.

Factory Reset Used IoT Devices

Whether you bought a new home with IoT devices built-in or you bought a second-hand device, it’s important to factory reset every single one of them before you start using them. Previous owners may have unwittingly installed software that makes your system vulnerable to attacks.

On the flip side, it’s important to also factory reset if you’re selling your used IoT devices. These gadgets usually store data that only a proper factory reset can wipe.

Failure to Secure One Device is Failure to Secure All of Them

IoT devices are also called connected devices. They’re not only connected to the internet; they’re also connected to each other. 

Your smart home security, therefore, is only as strong as its weakest link. 

It’s important to give the same attention to security detail across all of your devices. Hackers need only one poorly secured device to break into the entire system.

Stay with Trusted Brands

There are a lot of inexpensive connected devices out in the market today. For every Chromecast, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of clones and copies. 

What makes the Chromecast different is that it’s the only streaming device from Google. It’s a huge company with a brand to protect. Getting their devices hacked and broken into could potentially mean billions in lost revenue.

Sure, Google doesn’t have the best public perception when it comes to data privacy. In the eyes of some people, the data mining operations of the company is downright criminal. Smart homeowners, however, probably don’t share that view.  

Bringing any IoT device home with you places an implied trust on the device manufacturer. So, would you trust an unknown brand with your viewing habits or your streaming website credentials? Doing so would be like giving your bank details and passcodes to a random stranger.

Check Permissions on the App

IoT devices usually come with smartphone applications from which to control them. They work well, especially if they’re from established brands.

One of the features that these apps usually have is the ability to check the permissions. On default settings, the app has a bunch of permissions ticked. 

You can tick off some of these that you don’t really need. This ensures that the device only collects the data that you want it to collect and only sends data to destinations that you want to send to. 

This way, you have a more informed perspective on the data and how the AI uses that data to make your life more convenient.

Wrapping up

Smart devices are on the rise, and it shows no sign of slowing down and with technologies such as 5g on the horizon, the number of smart devices purchased will only increase.

This is a great thing for convenience because we’ll be able to automate some of the mundane stuff that we have to do in life.

There’s some great devices out there already such as the Ring doorbell which allows you to talk to someone knocking at your door and smart speakers that you can control from your smartphone.

But as we have alluded to, this comes at a cost.  Personally, I would only use well known brands and I think it’s probably wise to stay away from devices such as smart thermostats, because if they do get compromised, it could result in physical damage to your appliances.

That being said, I’m still amazed that you can turn on a smart bulb from anywhere in the world and it’s great to be able to put that bit of doubt into the mind of anyone that thinks about breaking into your property whilst you’re away on vacation.