Our lamp is named after our dog.
Yes, there’s a lamp next to my spot on the sofa. But when we turn that lamp off, it’s because my 15-year-old spaniel sleeps next to it while I’m at my desk, working.
When we need to turn that lamp off, we simply issue the command to Alexa. Off it goes.
The funny thing is, I’m old enough to remember when “The Clapper” came out. It seemed so revolutionary. Clap two times, the light goes off. Clap two times again, it comes back on again. It seemed so state-of-the-art at the time!
Now we can control our thermostat, garage door, security cameras, and lights by saying a few words after Alexa’s name. At Christmastime, we hook the tree lights up to it and power them on and off via voice command. And that’s nothing to say of the smart toasters.
These items are lumped into the category of “smart home devices.” Yet the technology behind them is the Internet of Things (IoT).
Yet as much as those devices bring to our lives, they bring a few risks.
Here’s what you need to know.
What Is the Internet of Things?
The Internet started as a very straightforward concept. You logged into a computer (usually a desktop) and connected (usually via a modem).
The Internet gradually spread to other devices. Smartphones and tablets let us access it on the go (or while seated on the sofa). Now we have smart watches, too.
If you look around your house, chances are the Internet also powers other things. Our thermostat is “smart,” which means we can control it from our devices. We can also set up schedules. Some smart thermostats automatically learn your preferences and adjust accordingly.
Our smart TV connects to the Internet to allow us to stream Netflix, Amazon Prime, and all the other services we need to watch movies and TV shows.
There are even smart forks that monitor your food intake and smart scales that track your weight and body fat.
You can buy a smart egg tray if you’re unsure whether you’re out of eggs. Yes, that’s actually a thing.
There are a lot of Internet-connected devices that exist solely to provide remote control. Our garage door is smart. It just means we can open and close it from anywhere and view how long it’s been open or closed.
We have smart plugs that let us manage our lighting through our smart speaker. And our smart speaker can play music, give us information, add items to our grocery list, and much more.
Did you know she’ll even read books to you from your Kindle library?
These devices make up what’s known as the Internet of Things, a category of tech that covers all the appliances and household items connected to the Internet.
Yet anything connected to the Internet comes with some risks.
Let’s look at the benefits first.
The Benefits of IoT
You probably have at least one IoT device in your home. Whether you do or not, there’s no denying that they have their benefits.
Here are a few things that make the IoT worthwhile.
At bedtime, I walk into the bedroom and say these four words:
“Alexa, turn on the bedroom.”
Immediately, the bedside lamp comes on, and the white noise machine fires up. Once we’re settled in, I ask Alexa to turn off the bedroom lamp.
I could get even more detailed than that if I just took a few minutes to set it up. For instance, you can create a routine that automatically puts your entire house in bedtime mode. That includes:
- Doors locked
- Alarm armed
- All lights out
- Thermostat at the desired temperature
- Bedside lamp on (until you can get settled in)
Smart plugs can handle the lamps, but you’ll need to invest in smart locks, an Internet-connected alarm system, and a smart thermostat if you don’t have them yet.
The benefits here are clear. Instead of spending the last few minutes of your day wandering around, turning off lights, and locking up, you can tackle it all with two words: “Alexa, goodnight.”.
The more of these devices we add to our homes, the harder it becomes to imagine life without them.
2. Cost Savings
When we go on vacation, I always set the house to a less comfortable temperature.
Then, I set a reminder on my phone. The day we start our return, I connect to the thermostat on my phone and put the house back to a more comfortable temperature.
When we return, we save a little money on utility bills without sacrificing comfort. By the time we walked into the house, there was no indication the house was ever at a less-than-desirable temperature.
I could also set a schedule that would save money. For example, I could automatically have the temperature adjusted a few minutes after the last person left and kick back into a comfortable temperature a half hour or so before we arrived home.
The savings may be small, but over time, pennies dollars.
3. Enhanced Security
One night I left our garage door open overnight.
I swore I’d closed it. Luckily, no mischief happened, but I was relieved to get our smart garage door opener. Now I have it set to alert me if our garage door remains open for more than ten minutes.
The same goes for smart locks. You can set up notifications if your door remains unlocked for a period of time.
You can also set a code to let your pet sitter or house cleaner in while you’re away. That code can be changed at any time. All of this helps keep you and your family safe.
Cars now implement similar technology. My husband’s SUV automatically locks when he walks away and unlocks as he approaches, as long as he has the key.
If you are forgetful like me, all these features can be a little extra protection.
4. Household Monitoring
IoT devices can serve a very useful purpose if you have children in the house.
Say your teens hop off the school bus in the afternoon while you’re still at work. You can set up your smart locks and garage door to alert you when someone comes or goes from any of your home’s entry points.
If you have connected cameras, you can also keep an eye on each of those entry points.
We have a smart doorbell and two connected cameras. So we can see who pulls into our driveway or walks up to our front door.
You can also find smart smoke and carbon monoxide detectors that will monitor for danger and alert you, even if you’re away from home.
The Risks of IoT
There are some risks if a device relies on the Internet to function properly.
Do you have a Ring doorbell camera?
Plenty of households do. They also offer surveillance cameras that hook up to the main one.
If you’re one of the households using a Ring product, it’s important to be aware of the security issues the company has faced.
First, the Federal Trade Commission has taken action against the company for allowing employees access to private videos.
Pretty unsettling, right?
It gets worse. The FTC has also taken issue with Ring’s security measures.
More than 55,000 U.S. customers may have been impacted by one security breach. Yes, that’s 55,000 customers who may have had their private videos (including sound) accessed by…no telling who.
If you have interior Ring cameras, that’s a concern for all kinds of creepy reasons. But even if you only have a doorbell camera, there are some reasons to take notice of these security worries:
When someone heard I had a doorbell camera, he said, “You know police can use those as evidence in cases.”
I’m not sure what’s happening on his front porch, but unless getting way too many Amazon packages delivered is a crime, I’m pretty sure I’m safe.
But if you regularly have illicit activities happening around your house, it might be important to note that your footage could become a problem for a completely different reason.
The first time I had one of those fancy washers and dryers, it broke. As the repairman worked on it, he said, “These newfangled devices are just a pain. More technology means a bigger chance of failure.”
There’s some truth in that. What happens if your thermostat malfunctions or your smart garage door opener suddenly falls victim to a cybercriminal?
The more dependent we are on the Internet, the more we stand to lose if online services go down.
Stop and think about what happens with a power outage.
Our smart garage door opener has a battery backup so we aren’t locked out of our house in that event. Some smart locks, lights, and thermostats also use battery backups.
Of course, if your power’s out, some of those devices won’t help you much, anyway.
The number one consideration –– being able to enter and exit your home during a power outage –– merits concern. A battery backup will help in a power outage, but what if a hacker takes your locks (or garage door opener) down? Or what if a sensor fails?
Would you be locked out of your house?
These are all things we need to check before they become an issue.
3. Identity Theft
Several people in my life refuse to have a smart speaker. “People can listen to you.”
I always joke that if someone’s going to listen in, they’ll probably pick a household that’s a little more interesting than mine. Maybe a house full of college students or a family with a bunch of kids.
But the all-too-serious truth is that a hacker could easily grab some information by listening in through your smart speaker.
Sure, it might take a while to catch you reciting your Social Security number to confirm your upcoming surgery or your credit card number to order that all-so-enticing product you saw advertised on TV.
Eventually, a savvy hacker could grab enough information to commit identity theft. And that information could be used to apply for credit or even a bank account in your name.
It’s enough to have me considering dropping that smart speaker off at the electronic waste recycling center.
Keep Yourself Safe with IoT
IoT comes with both conveniences and risks.
But there are some things you can do to reduce those risks.
1. Review Privacy Policies
We all should be reading privacy policies in detail. And that’s especially true with all those IoT devices around the house.
If it’s too much to read, head straight to the section that lets you know how information is collected and whether it’s sold to third parties. If there’s a way to opt out, do it.
Ring uses security protocols and encryption to keep your information safe, but the problems cited by the FTC had to do with internal workers having access.
The other Ring issue, though, was that passwords were being hacked, which leads us to one of the best things you can do to keep your smart devices safe from intruders.
2. Tighten Your Password Settings
The easiest way for hackers to gain control of your devices is to guess your password.
There’s even technology that can run through millions of password combinations and find a way in.
The tougher you make it, the less likely you will experience a breach.
Set a complex password and, if possible, a username that would be tough to guess.
Also, make sure you enable two-factor authentication. This will ensure only someone with a secondary device or access to your email account can get into your account.
3. Check Your Home Wi-Fi Setup
Your smart devices are hooked up to your home network.
Yes, the same network you use for your smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Hopefully, you’ve secured your home Wi-Fi. Here’s a quick checklist to help you:
Some experts recommend putting your smart home devices on a different router from your computers, phones, and tablets. That way, if someone creeps into your network by breaching one of your devices, the damage will be limited.
Great advice, but I have trouble keeping up with one Wi-Fi setup!
4. Invest in Identity Theft Protection
We don’t have to get rid of our smart devices to stay safe.
Yes, there’s still an element of risk, but there is something that can help protect us. (And help us sleep a little better at night!)
Identity theft protection services such as Aura, LifeLock, and IdentityForce specialize in repairing the damage caused by identity thieves. They’ll also alert you if suspicious activity is detected so you can take action.
Smart devices have become a way of life for many of us, but they come with risks.
As with other Internet-connected devices, we must do what we can to tighten security.
By following strict password protocols and making sure you’ll have access in case of a security breach (or power outage), you can keep your household running.
You can also enjoy the many conveniences that the Internet of Things brings.