By Carolyn Jabs
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 preferences by interacting with them.
Taken together, all these smart, app-driven devices are called the Internet of Things (IoT).
By 2020, there will be 50 billion of these intelligent devices according to one report from the American Federal Trade Commission (tinyurl.com/IoTpolicy). Proponents promise that this technology will integrate seamlessly into our lives, anticipating our needs and simplifying many 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. It’s not paranoid to wonder who has access to all that information.
Be smart about permission
The first line of defense is purchasing from reputable companies that make the extra effort to build security into their products. Before buying anything that claims to be smart, find out whether 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 use is made of the information. 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 things you might want to buy. And some companies share information with government agencies or sell it to other unrelated companies. Depending on the situation, these policies may seem perfectly okay or highly intrusive. You can’t make an informed decision unless you understand the company’s policy.
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 cellphones 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 on cellphones and computers. Consumers can defend themselves by taking these precautions.
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. Keep track of the smart devices your family uses. Set up software so updates are downloaded automatically if possible. Or designate one day a month as Security Day. Log into the apps and websites that control your smart devices and install any updates. Delete apps controlling devices that aren’t being used.
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. Of course, it’s not easy to keep track of dozens of passwords. A password storage program like Last Pass will generate and keep track of truly random passwords, but they are also vulnerable to hackers.
Another alternative is to develop your own system for creating unique but memorable passwords. Start with a 10 or 12 word phrase that has meaning for you. It could be a song lyric, a favorite quote, the punchline to a family joke, something cute one of your kids said, or a simple fact about your family, e.g. “Our family likes to hike in Yellowstone Park every summer.” Take the first letter of each word—oflthiypes—and start fooling with them so there are capitals, numbers, and other symbols. Ofl2hiYPe$. Now insert initials for the smart device into the password. Changing those initials creates a very secure password that’s specific for each device or app.
Pay special attention to microphones and cameras
Because devices with microphones and cameras can eavesdrop on your family, they require extra supervision. Learn how to disable cameras and mute microphones when they aren’t in use. If you don’t have confidence in the controls, think twice about purchasing the device. Or cover lenses with privacy stickers, available from companies like camjmr.com.
Consider a separate Wifi connection
As smart devices proliferate, some experts suggest having two password protected Wifi connections for your home. One provides access to computers, tablets and cellphones—devices that contain everything from family 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. Some routers make this easy by providing a guest network option, but most families will need a professional to make sure everything is configured properly. Still, linking things into their own separate network creates peace of mind. Even if one device has a security flaw, sensitive information will still be protected.
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, M.A., writes about families and technology and is the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, a book that describes a highly effective way to address conflict in families, schools and communities. Available at Amazon and cooperativewisdom.org.