Guidry: Smart home tech offers convenience but poor security

Smart home technology is all around us. From wireless thermostats to automatic lights, everyday objects are going online and app-enabled. Consumers can buy these devices in nearly any home-improvement store, but unfortunately many don’t realize smart technology often comes with poor security.

The computer industry is abuzz with concern smart home tech is putting consumers at risk of data and privacy theft. Companies are slapping Internet connectivity onto products as fast as they can, but they’re not necessarily making customer privacy a priority. Data breaches involving smart home tech are rampant. Yet most consumers don’t know this, unless they happen to follow trends in information technology.

Meanwhile, more of these devices are entering the market. It’s not just smart home technology, but smart technology within the home. Collectively, we call this the “Internet of Things,” online technology built into everyday objects. Smart cars, fitness gadgets, kids’ toys, even basic household appliances such as electric water kettles can connect via WiFi or Bluetooth. And, like other Internet-connected devices, they can be hacked.

But hacking is not the only threat. What happens when companies go out of business or sell to other companies? Recently, thermostat maker Nest (owned by Google) announced smart home hubs from Revolv, a company acquired by Nest in 2014, will stop working in May. Owners are left in the lurch with few options or resources.

When considering smart home tech, ask:

• What data does this device collect?

• Where does it send my data?

• Can I opt out or store my data on the local device instead?

• How long is my data retained?

• Am I comfortable sharing this data?

• Am I willing to trade security and privacy for the functionality this device provides?

• What happens when this device becomes obsolete?

When installing smart home devices, change the default passwords immediately. Use strong passwords that are different for each of your devices as well as all of your Internet accounts. Yes, that means a different password for every single site and device. People often ignore this vital piece of advice, but passwords, though far from perfect, remain one of your best defenses.

Use strong protection on your home and office wireless networks. WEP is not good enough; you need WPA or WPA2. Use a complex, preferably random passphrase. Don’t connect your smart devices to public WiFi networks. Instead, use a VPN or a private wireless tether such as those offered with some smart phones.

Double-check default security settings and reconfigure them as needed. If you don’t need to send data, don’t. Avoid syncing devices with social media, as this is a quick way to introduce malware into your network. Check the manufacturer’s website for device updates, and install them regularly.

While all of these precautions are worthwhile, nothing will keep your data safe if the server is hacked or the company goes out of business. That’s why you should research smart devices before incorporating them into your home, keep an eye on the data your devices are collecting and have a plan in place for eventual upgrade or replacement.

• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and computer specialist. Her Tech Tips blog offers tech support advice for Windows and Mac.

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