Internet of Things – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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It’s 10:00pm. Your baby is sound asleep in the room next door. That’s why you’re understandably shocked when you abruptly hear a person yelling in the baby’s room. You rush in only to find no one there. After waiting a minute, you hear it again. You look around the room trying to find out where the person is, but you do not see anyone. Then, all of a sudden, you realize it’s coming from the Nest camera aimed at your baby’s crib. You’re relieved that there isn’t actually someone in your house – or is there? As crazy as this sounds, that’s exactly what happened to a family in Illinois recently. This and other similar reports have raised the awareness of potential risks of what is known as the “Internet of Things.”

The Internet of Things, or “IoT”, is one of the hottest tech growth areas right now. It’s a broad term that describes the concept of connecting literally any physical thing to the Internet. Gone are the days when computers are the only things that can use the Internet. Today, it’s harder and harder to find an electronic device that is not able to connect to the Internet. Many of these devices are intended for your house – to create a “connected home.” Cameras, door locks, thermostats, lights, TVs, refrigerators, coffee pots, garage doors, sprinklers, and so much more can be connected to the Internet. But these devices aren’t limited to the home. Cars, lawn mowers, coffee mugs, eyeglasses, and teddy bears, to name a few, can also go online.

But why do we want to do this? Connecting a “thing” to the Internet can provide three main advantages. First of all, accessibility. In a connected home, you can sit on the couch and turn lights on or off from your phone, or unlock the front door without a key. Secondly, monitoring. For example, a camera that connects to the Internet can be monitored from anywhere in the world. Or, monitor your connected car’s location and get alerts if the person borrowing it exceeds the speed limit. The third reason is automation. Shades can go up and down on a set schedule, thermostats can adjust based on time of day or even whether or not you’re home, and sprinklers can turn on when it hasn’t rained in a certain number of days and no rain is in the forecast. Once properly configured, connected devices can certainly simplify your life in many useful ways.

So that’s the good, but what about the bad? The most obvious negative is the cost of connected devices. Putting smart light switches throughout your home will cost substantially more than a traditional light switch. Configuration can be difficult. Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish and what your technical expertise is, it can sometimes be helpful to have an expert assist you to get everything setup properly. Misconfigured devices can often create much more work and hassle, eliminating any benefits that the device might otherwise provide.

And now – the ugly. The aforementioned incident with the baby cam is one of countless cases where an intruder has broken into an IoT device. Depending on the device, intruders may just be able to be annoying by doing things like turning lights on or off. But they can also invade your privacy and cause other serious issues. Imagine if the intruder turns off the air conditioning in your house on a hot summer day with pets in the house. Or, what if they unlock your smart lock on your door in order to walk right in and steal whatever they want. In any number of scenarios, it could be a very bad day.

Although IoT devices often contain security vulnerabilities, most of these “hacks” occur due to misconfiguration. All too often, users do not change the default passwords when they purchase a new IoT device, which prompted California to recently pass a law banning default passwords on all IoT devices. Another common issue is using weak passwords. Even if it’s changed, there is a perception that it doesn’t matter as much if someone hacks into an IoT device as opposed to a computer. And lastly, many IoT devices have traditional security vulnerabilities. The big problem there is that they are rarely updated. Your computer and mobile devices get patched routinely to resolve security issues. But most IoT devices will not auto-update and most users would have no idea how to update the software running on their devices even if they wanted to do so.

Given all of that, there is no reason to avoid IoT devices, but you should be smart about using them. Here are three quick tips for implementing IoT devices:

  1. Decide if you really need an IoT-enabled version of the device. Do you need a refrigerator with a tablet built into it, or will a regular refrigerator do? Remember IoT costs more and has potential security issues, so make sure the pros outweigh the cons.
  2. Set a strong password on all your IoT devices. Treat it just like a computer or cell phone.
  3. Keep your IoT devices behind a firewall. Most devices can communicate through firewalls as needed, but it will help to protect the device from hackers.

IoT devices are here to stay and they do offer a number of compelling advantages over “old school” disconnected devices. But it’s important to make sure you know what you’re doing (or get professional assistance) before connecting them to the Internet. Otherwise, you might find that you are bringing more than just the device into your world.

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