How to Secure Smart Home Devices in 5 Steps

By Special Guest
Walid Negm, CTO of Aricent
June 20, 2018

Are you among the millions of consumers across the world who have an Amazon Echo or a Google Home? Or are you creeped out by ‘always connected’ smart home devices that are ‘watching’ and ‘listening’ to you always?

A Cisco survey in December 2017 found that only 9 percent of consumers fully trusted IoT devices. Surprisingly, despite the vote of no confidence for connected devices, the survey found that the majority of people who use IoT devices were not willing to give them up. Smart home devices are enhancing people’s lives and while it might be too much of a good thing for some, many consumers are in no mood to unplug them anytime soon.

Alexa, how did we get here?
One of the latest security scares with smart home devices involved an Amazon Echo that apparently recorded a couple’s private conversation and sent it to an acquaintance. A few months ago, Alexa scared many of its owners by randomly laughing, like a witch! While both these incidents are not believed to involve criminal infiltration, it certainly can shake consumer confidence.

So, what steps can consumers take to protect their smart home devices?

Create your own wake words
Cyber criminals are opportunistic. If people make it easy for them, they are more likely to strike. But, rather like a ‘real world’ burglar, they are also more likely to move onto the next house (or network) if they find even basic security precautions in place. So, don’t make it easy for them. The first step to take is to change the smart home device’s wake words from the manufacturer’s default settings.

Change from ‘always on’ to ‘sometimes off’
Researchers recently proved that they could manipulate voice assistants to carry out commands like opening doors and buying items by transmitting signals through white noise without the owners even being aware. In the ‘real world’, if two people are having a sensitive conversation, they might close the door or go somewhere more private. Similarly, consumers should consider turning off ‘listening’ or disabling a digital assistant’s skills at certain times. Sensitive situations might include conversations which are confidential, intimate or if when you have strangers in your house.

Do a roll-call for devices
In the UK, two thirds of people use more than three connected devices. Per household, taking into account “shared” devices like gaming consoles and digital assistants, this figure could more than double. It might surprise you, but many consumers forget how many ‘always on – always online’ devices they have in the household.

It is important to know what devices connect to your network. Next, make sure you recognize all the devices and then ensure they are all running the most up to date software. They say, ‘no pain, no gain’, but when it comes to patching (updating software), that is not true. With minimal effort, devices can be secured to the best available specifications. Always patch your devices!

Change the settings
Smart home devices arrive with default settings to plug-and-play and help users get started quickly. However, what is less well understood is that the default privacy settings for many smart home devices are usually set up to favor the manufacturer’s own business interests.  For instance, purchase an Amazon assistant and typically voice-activated purchasing function will work automatically. Even if consumers do not wish to disable these functions entirely, manufactures should consider adjusting them so a ‘speakable’ confirmation code is required for purchases.

Be wise with Wi-Fi
As more and more devices – with all their user data and security credentials – sit on home networks, it becomes an increasingly attracting proposition for criminals to hack. Secure your Wi-Fi. It does not take an IT expert to cover off some basic steps. For instance, most ISPs produce an app or web portal where customers can monitor the devices connected to the network and adjust settings, like the network ID or the encryption levels. This provides an easy-to-manage overview of what is going on in a home network. From here, households can decide if they want additional precautions, like a firewall.

Want to go the extra mile? Consider setting up a separate Wi-Fi network for each smart device. 

Alexa, is there trouble ahead?
Does the recent spate of security scares spell the end of our love affair with smart devices? No way. The UK telecoms operator, BT, predicts UK households will routinely be connecting to 50 devices by 2023. However, this might signal the end of the honeymoon period for smart home devices.

Device manufacturers must work harder at building trust. While business and standards bodies consider their next move, the good news is that consumers can take action now to protect themselves by following simple steps to bolster device and network security.

About the author: Walid Negm is Chief Technology Officer of Aricent and is responsible for technology strategy and innovation. Walid was most recently with Accenture as Global Lead for Industrial Internet of Things. Walid co-founded Forum Systems, Kenai Systems, CellExchange and was the Director of e-Commerce Products with Oracle Corporation.

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