By Bindu Vijayan
With smart homes, we have given ourselves the distinct advantage of being able to do old tasks in new, smarter ways. Gartner reports that twenty-five billion connected devices are expected to be in use by 2021, up from the current 14.2 billion this year. Marketsandmarkets report that the smart home market would be worth $151.4 billion by 2024.
Our interactions with appliances, electronics, cars, lighting and what not, might actually be turning us over to the new enemy – complexity. I want my blinds down before I reach home from work, my four dogs who used to go berserk with the soft purr of those blinds going down at 4 every evening have gotten used to it, and to me the ‘smart aspects’ of our everyday lives mean sheer technological nirvana, an infinite level of convenience. In fact, it has often caught me thinking – did we give ourselves the advantage of added aesthetics when we chose connectivity and automation? If the same task of drawing the window blinds was done by someone at home, there would be that rush of impatience, a quick stab of action – whoosh and tumble of those wooden slats, very different clicks from the ‘gentle’ hum of smart blinds!
Technology is hugely impressive, we automate everything we fancy, we make businesses and then cannibalize them at the knock of a newer promise, but as I move up the age pyramid, I realize just how difficult it can get for the elderly, for those who are not tech-savvy, and even for the segment of the current digital generation who are not technical, they have to first learn how to use the technology.
When we read that Hollywood residences spend as much as $1.8M for their burglar alarm, door locks and outdoor lighting, we think, they can afford it, so why not, but when I go searching for a modest installation to smart protect my home with just the basic of burglar alarm and locks, a $3000 basic option has me smarting, but the implications are far more than just financial.
These advanced security systems for smart homes regarded as one of the major advantages run the risk of getting hacked, we are adopting connected technologies faster than we should. There isn’t enough time and effort spent on securing these technologies. Security cameras, alarm systems, motion sensors have become easy targets for hackers and so breaking in has also become a lot easier.
When we look at how it has changed lifestyle – smart door access, smart thermostats, smart plugs to turning lights on without leaving our beds, heating dinners, mowing the lawn, switching on our fav music – everything done without having to move around, we cant blame our children for their sedentary lifestyle and the ever looming threat of obesity and its series of cardiovascular diseases.
Talk about privacy, that seems to be the recurring smart home threat time and time again. All those video feeds from the various cameras that go into a security system is particularly vulnerable.
Here is an excerpt from a recent report, a chilling example of the despair smart technology can cause – “Arjun and Jessica Sud routinely use a baby monitor to keep tabs on their 7-month-old’s bedroom. Last month, they heard something chilling through the monitor: A deep male voice was speaking to their child.
“Immediately I barge into the room because I’m like, ‘Oh my God, maybe someone got in there,’” said Arjun Sud, 29. “The moment I walk in, it’s quiet.”
The couple grabbed their son, now fully awake, and headed downstairs. When they passed their Nest thermostat, normally set around 72 degrees, they noticed it had been turned up to 90. Then, the voice was back, coming through the speaker in a downstairs security camera. And this time, it was talking to them.
The voice was rude and vulgar, using the n-word and cursing, he said. At first, he yelled back. But then, Sud composed himself and stared into the camera.
“He was like, ‘Why are you looking at me? I see you watching me,’ ” Sud said. “That’s when I started to question him back.”
The family’s Nest cameras and thermostat had been hacked. As the couple felt, all the expensive devices they invested in to safeguard the family were used maliciously to turn against them!
Similarly, a family in Houston reported hearing sexual expletives from the baby monitor in their infant’s room. When they turned on the lights, the Nest camera in the room activated. And then a voice told them to turn off the lights and if they didn’t, it threatened that their infant would be kidnapped!
Nest is a Google-owned company but there have been several Nest users across US who have reported similar incidents. And a large section of the world would think Google would secure their products well enough!
There are too many gizmos being manufactured with not enough attention to security. Karl Sigler, threat intelligence manager at SpiderLabs, a team of ethical hackers at the Chicago-based cybersecurity company Trustwave, says,” One reason smart home devices may be vulnerable to hacking is that they are often developed by vendors who know how to manufacture a standard appliance, but aren’t as well-versed in how to securely connect it to the internet. The devices are also developed with convenience in mind, and manufacturers are sensitive about security steps that consumers may interpret as frustrating or a hassle.”
With the devices being used within intimate confines such as our homes, most consumers who are not tech-savvy don’t quite grasp the consequences of not securing them adequately, and that is one of the biggest challenges today. My mother thought I was rambling until she heard about the fire that was caused by a smart toaster, or the food that can get spoilt by her refrigerator getting hacked!
Here is another chilling example – recently, Las Vegas casino’s high-roller database was accessed through a smart thermometer in a fish tank! ‘Interesting Engineering’ reported, “They then found the high-roller database and then pulled that back across the network, out the thermostat, and up to the cloud.”
More recently, Pen Test Partners posted online showing how two well-known car alarm brands could be hijacked, controlled thru just a smartphone by the attacker. It is reported that these alarms were installed on some 3 million vehicles worldwide!
The smart market is getting wider – Walgreens is planning on a line of ‘smart coolers’, these coolers have cameras to scan shoppers’ faces to get demographic information. The technology can also do ‘iris tracking’, to provide retailers information on the displays that were most looked at. They plan to have them installed in stores across Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Retailers want information of their buyers to segment them by age, gender, income and so on to do target marketing. These cameras can analyze faces to infer age, gender and so on, by the AI system thru micro-measurements, for e.g., the distance between their lips and nose, and then estimate the age and gender of the person who opened the cooler door. What these coolers do is analysis and not facial recognition. Facial recognition in public is apparently outlawed under BIPA, the Biometric Privacy Act, in Illinois. (Facebook and Google have had to fight class-action suits under the law)
The RSA 2019 conference brought to attention that there are very serious security issues with smart-home gadgets and devices. The threat is systemic and widespread. The presenters gave demos on how to hack alarms, children’s dolls, their GPS tracking watches among other threats. There was a video released on how to hack a 3rd party smart car alarms and carjack moving vehicles!!!
As consumers, we are advised to watch out for the IP addresses accessing our smart home devices – every computer that accesses a device should have a unique numerical label that should show in the log. We should make sure the software on our devices is regularly updated so that it is equipped with the latest security patches. Most times it becomes difficult for us to notice when our smart device is compromised, it can just get slower, or it reboots automatically or just gets unresponsive.