Protecting Your Family's Devices From Hackers


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It’s no secret that things are getting smarter. Devices let parents check in on sleeping babies and keep track of children when they are away from home. Home management systems turn on lights, lock doors and monitor use of water or electricity. Entertainment apps notice what we like so they can offer similar products. Even little kids have apps and toys that learn their users’ preferences by interacting with them. 

Taken together, all these smart, app-driven devices are called the Internet of Things (IoT) by the tech community. By 2020, there will be 50 billion of these intelligent devices,  according to a January 2015 Federal Trade Commission report titled, “Internet of Things: Privacy and Security in a Connected World.”

Proponents promise that this technology will integrate seamlessly into our lives, anticipating our needs and simplifying chores. Beguiling as that scenario is, it comes with a price. All of these devices are “smart” because they are collecting information about our families — what we like, where we go, what we do and even what we say.

Lines of Defense

The first line of defense is purchasing secure devices from reputable companies. Before you buy, find out if there is a procedure for updating security if the device is hacked.

Second, figure out exactly what information the device collects. Devices and the apps that run them often sweep up information that isn’t essential for their mission. A step counter, for example, needs to keep track of how many steps you took, but not necessarily where you went. Give permission only for information needed to make the device functional. 

Third, understand what the information is being used for. Many companies collect anonymous information to spot trends that help them improve their products. Some companies use data to determine what you like so they can recommend other products you might want to buy. And some companies share information with government agencies or sell it to unrelated companies.

Hacking, of course, is a risk even for products purchased from a reliable company that handles information responsibly. Many security experts are concerned that the Internet of Things is highly vulnerable to manipulation. Unlike computers and smartphones, which come with elaborate security systems and update procedures, devices are not required to have protection. As a result, they may give hackers backdoor access to wireless systems and sensitive data.

Precautions Consumers Should Take

1. Install updates. Hackers are constantly testing systems to see if they are vulnerable. Responsible companies develop fixes as soon as they are aware of problems, but those solutions won’t help if you don’t install updates. Delete apps controlling devices that aren’t being used. 

2. Take passwords seriously. Many experts recommend a unique password for each device. That way, even if one device is compromised, hackers won’t have access to other information. Develop a system for creating unique but memorable passwords.

3. Pay attention to microphones and cameras. Learn how to disable cameras and mute microphones when they aren’t in use. Or cover lenses with privacy stickers, available from companies like camjmr.com.

4. Consider a separate Wifi connection. As smart devices proliferate, some experts suggest having two password-protected Wifi connections. One provides access to devices that contain everything from photos to financial information. The other allows communication among things — toys, toasters, thermostats and home management systems, like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home.

Although smart devices have the potential to make family life more convenient and entertaining, they can also be an expensive distraction. Ultimately, parents have to be the smart ones, evaluating each product to decide whether it’s useful enough — and secure enough — to deserve a place in your home.

Carolyn Jabs is the author of “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart,” available for sale at Amazon and cooperativewisdom.org.

 

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