One of the creepiest moments in horror film history occurs in Poltergeist when a family's young daughter, Carol Anne realises that there are beings, with intent to harm, watching and listening to her family via the TV. She eerily turns to the camera and announces: "They're heeeeeeere!"
We recently experienced a very similar moment for real - when WikiLeaks revealed that the CIA can hack into everyday smart devices to monitor unaware citizens. There was no Poltergeist-style freaking out, even when it was reported that US and British intelligence agencies are capable of recording personal conversations via Samsung smart TVs - regardless of whether the device was on or off.
As a security expert, what freaks me out most about this creepy turn of events is that we appear to be sleepwalking into a culture of surveillance, without exercising our right to personal choice about the level of privacy we want in our lives.
In order to regain control of our most personal spaces, we need to wake up to the hard facts about the astonishing lack of security built into these not-so-smart smart devices. So, time for some hard home truths:
Every connected device can be hacked
The WikiLeaks revelations show the astonishing potential for our homes to be hacked via our most trusted personal devices. We welcome these seemingly benign modcons into our home to make our lives easier - from smart lights to shelf-scanning fridges to intelligent thermostats - not realising they're actually monitoring us in stealth. What the recent news of the CIA hacks made clear was that any appliance which is online is vulnerable to hacking, no matter how harmless it appears. Once the device vendor enables this data collection for its own use we must assume that this capability is available to hackers as well.
Hackers can be anyone, from anywhere
Again, what WikiLeaks has showed is that hackers are not necessarily the stereotypical rebellious teenager working from his/her bedrooms causing mischief, or hardened offshore criminals. They can be law enforcing government agencies. They can be your neighbours - or your frenemies. This has huge implications, with some researchers warning that this level of privacy invasion in our homes could be detrimental to community spirit as we become increasingly distrustful of others.
Your privacy is gone if your devices are hacked
Once a hacker cracks your system via a vulnerable device, no matter which one it is, they can take control of all your connected devices. They can remotely activate them, change settings, rack up huge bills and observe your every move. Big Brother is indeed, watching. Not only that this data can be used for already known cyber crimes such as identity theft and many other fraudulent activities.
No one will protect your connected devices
If you buy a new smart gadget you might assume that the manufacturer has considered, and built in, the necessary security measures to protect your privacy. The truth is that manufacturers are much more interested in launching products quickly, and developing and monetising the latest trends, then they are not prioritising security. Protecting your smart home from privacy invasion comes down to you, and with connected devices forecast to reach 21bn by 2020, your home is increasingly vulnerable.
Sound daunting? it is. Securing a home network is a huge challenge to IT pros, not to mention average customers. So, where should you start? The first thing you need to think about is how much you value your privacy and what you're prepared to do to protect it.
For instance, some people are not worried about being observed, taking the attitude: "If I've got nothing to hide, then what's the problem?" However, others feel uncomfortable - violated, even - by the thought that someone could be listening to their most personal conversations, from chats with their children to intimate bedroom moments. They're also worried about the potential for family safety to be compromised as a result, too.
If you fall into the latter camp, you are in the majority. Nearly two-thirds of consumers are worried about smart home devices listening in on their conversations, according to a recent Gartner survey.Here are some steps you can take to protect your privacy:
- Check your device's' privacy settings and change according to what you're comfortable with
- Don't share your passwords - remember what I said about frenemies?
- Upgrade software as soon as you can to iron out bugs and vulnerabilities in the system
- Don't use the same Wi-Fi network for your devices and your main computer
- Use devices that encrypt data
- Use an artificially intelligent system like Dojo which provides tailored security and privacy for each device, constantly monitoring for internal and external attacks and privacy breach.
Naturally, these steps require time and effort. But if your home is your haven and where you feel safe, these steps are more than worth it. Yes, the hackers may be here, hopeful to slip into our homes through the cracks, but that doesn't mean we need to invite them inside through a wide open door. Don't let your smart home become a fool's paradise.