Thursday, November 26, 2020
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Smart home devices

Smart home devices are really convenient. They let us control our lights with our voice, ask our fridge for the weather, and keep an eye on the house when we’re on vacation. But it’s also important to consider what these devices really are. They’re microphones, cameras, and tiny computers scattered through our home, connected to the internet, communicating with hundreds of different cloud services run by dozens of companies. It’s pretty easy to get into tin foil hat territory about this kind of thing, and that’s not my intention here. Basically, using smart home devices comes down to trust, as with any other device or service, electronic or not.

When you’re considering smart home devices, there are a few primary things to think about. The first one, as I mentioned, is trust. You’ll need to decide whether you trust the company selling the device and running the service that enables it. Developers and engineers at these companies are the ones responsible for making sure their hardware and software protects your information. And so, it’s helpful to think about what similar services you already trust. Major manufacturers have a lot at stake to get privacy and security right. Smaller brands and unknown brands may not have as much to lose if they don’t get it right. If you trust Google with your email, or Amazon to keep your shopping activity secure, do you also trust them with your spoken requests? If you use Siri on your iPhone, do you also trust Apple to keep your music requests on a home speaker private? If you do, great, if not, that’s fine, too.

If a smart home device has an app or a web service that allows you to control it, you should spend some time becoming familiar with it, and review the privacy and access settings to configure them securely. Make sure you use strong, unique passwords for services that have a login from outside your network. And if you don’t plan to use external access, see if you can disable it. As with any other service, if your account is compromised, others will be able to access your devices just as you do. If you use smart cameras, it’s important to think about where they’re pointed, in case they’re compromised. It can be a good idea to point them away from valuables, private spaces, and other sensitive things and areas.

If you use smart speakers, keep them where they can’t hear unintended requests. There’s a story about someone who had a smart lock on their front door, and a voice assistant, and they found out that their neighbor could open their front door by shouting a request through an open window. Right now, voice assistants can’t distinguish jokes from real requests, so if your friend comes to visit, they could theoretically order a thousand toothbrushes on your account if you don’t keep an eye on your purchasing activity. As with all kinds of digital devices, it’s important to keep an eye out for security updates and make sure they get applied when they’re available.

After devices are released to the market, sometimes bugs in the software that runs them are discovered, and manufacturers generally act quickly to publish fixes. But not all devices apply updates automatically. We live in a world now where your light switch could be part of a global botnet, attacking computers at a power station on the other side of the world. When you’re buying a smart home device, be sure to determine whether its firmware and software can be updated. If not, there’s a risk that there are bugs that will never be fixed. If you’re technically inclined, you can configure your smart devices to operate on their own network, separate from your computers and other devices.

This can help prevent malicious or misconfigured devices from having access to data on your network, and some routers will allow you to control very precisely what internet services devices on that network are allowed to communicate with. Doing this can help to ensure that even compromised devices aren’t able to send information somewhere they’re not supposed to, but it takes some research and setup. So if you don’t know how to do it, ask someone you trust who knows how to set it up. In many cases, the convenience of a voice assistant can outweigh privacy and safety concerns, and that’s a decision you need to make for yourself.