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Is the "Internet of Things" an Invitation for Dangerous Things?

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Why you might want to wait to get everything connected.

The "gee whiz!" future that computer wizards and Internet experts envisioned for us a few decades ago is finally here. It happened when smartphones, new smart devices, wireless networks, the Cloud and other hardware/software innovations magically came together, making it possible for people, businesses and institutions to connect to each other and to other devices, beyond computers and phones.

For example, not only can you manipulate your car remotely (temperature, engine start, etc.), but also the built-in computer can send alerts to your smartphone whenever your children are driving too late or where you don't want them to go. And parents can connect a baby monitor to their wireless network and monitor the baby's room with sound and video using their network. [Click here to read our article on the Internet of Things.]

More than that, all this exciting connectivity also involves monitoring and tracking every bit of information about our connections. Not only can you control your thermostat remotely or by voice, but also our utility companies can measure your energy usage in real time.

But there is a drawback to all this, a serious one that involves you, your connectivity and your privacy.

Smart idea?

All this cool technology and all these connectivity opportunities are happening so fast. It seems that new smart-product homes and businesses are rolling out daily.

CNET.com, a leading high-tech website, featured "The Best Smart Home Devices for 2016" on their website recently, where the main feature page announced, "From smart locks to smart lights, tech has finally come home."

But there's something they didn't mention: Hackers have invaded this space too.

Yes. They can hack into a refrigerator, a lighting system, or even a baby monitor. And until companies and people get wise to them, hackers will continue to look for ways to disrupt home sweet home. The same dangers and warnings apply to businesses and governments.

Buyer, beware.

Last year a couple in Washington was shocked to discover that a hacker had broken into their home network and was talking to their toddler through the baby monitor. The mother discovered it herself when she walked into the room and heard a strange voice, the hacker's own voice, talking to her child. The hacker had also commandeered the camera and was controlling it remotely, from wherever he was.

There was no way to identify who it was.

In an article in The Wall Street Journal about smart-device security (June 2, 2016), it says, "If hackers can commandeer a baby monitor, you know the Internet of Things needs to wake up to threats." It has been reported that hackers have also broken into smart medical devices, lighting and electronic systems. Even smart toilets!

There needs to be a way to flush them out.

It's also becoming obvious that companies that make Internet-connected devices need to focus more on security issues and less on being first in the marketplace or getting a top review on CNET.com. Hackers can extract a lot of private information from a network once they break in. Companies making these smart devices have to start doing more to protect their customers, whether homeowners or businesses.

Here are just few home items that now have a "smart version," allowing you to control them from a computer or remote:

  • Lightbulbs
  • Locks
  • Smoke detectors
  • Lighting systems
  • Information systems
  • Refrigerators
  • Security systems

All this is designed to make life more convenient, to take advantage of all this wondrous technology as we move into our globally connected world, the Internet of Things.

Wait just a minute.

Here's the problem: In a hurry to roll out new products, technology companies haven't built in enough security to keep hackers and intruders out of these devices.

That has a lot of people worried that money-seeking hackers can worm their way into networks through smart devices to extract financial information; that terrorists may try to hack into government-connected utilities and infrastructure to disrupt our regular routines, or worse; and that hackers in other countries (working for other governments) may expand their spying efforts by breaking into government or corporate networks.

And they won't do this through phishing or other hacker methods—they'll use the very latest, seemingly least-likely devices, the new ones we're all so eager to install and use, newfangled and exciting smart devices coming through our front doors.

The ones that, for now, are unprotected.

Hype or hack?

You might think this all sounds exaggerated, that it could be mostly hype to make security loopholes seem more dangerous than they really are, just to scare the public. But several reported hacks should make you think about the topic seriously:

  • A research team from the University of Texas proved it could hijack and remotely pilot an $80 million private yacht, using a fake GPS signal it created.
  • In November of 1975, images from 73,000 home-security cameras were hijacked by hackers and later displayed on a website.
  • A security expert, who is also a diabetic, claimed to have hacked into his own smart insulin pump. He reportedly discovered he could change the settings that controlled the dosage of the insulin.
  • Other experts say heart pacemakers and defibrillators could be hacked into, with life-threatening consequences.

And those types of takeover attacks are just one part of the smart device security story. There's also the hackers' attacks on a number of Clouds (massive data storage centers), where smart device data is sent and stored.

What can you do?

First, you should decide how fast you want to jump into the highly connected world and bring more smart devices into your home. Should you, for example...

  • Buy that new Samsung 4-door refrigerator with Family Hub Wi-Fi LCD touchscreen and built-in cameras—the one that lets you peek inside while you're at the grocery store?
  • Or should you wait until manufacturers, security companies and government regulators come up with an integrated game plan to keep hackers out of our non-phone smart devices?

The choice is all yours, but perhaps you should talk it over with the family at dinner.

Just remember that you never know who is watching, or listening, or tracking your smart home moves at your home or office.

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