From the moment I played my first game of Pong, I knew I loved technology. As a child, I couldn’t help but dismantle my electronics to examine their inner workings and I must confess, more than one transistor radio failed to recover from my inquisitiveness. I suppose it only natural and quite lucky that I eventually found my way into the world of “high tech”.
I have also had the extreme fortune that this line of work enables me to attend the coolest technology conferences—like Blackhat Technical Security, Def Con Hacking and CES (Consumer Electronics Show) – allowing me access to the latest security advances and threats, and previews of the coolest “must-own” consumer gadgets.
Most recently, I was able to experience the amazingness of CES—a tradeshow created and owned by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and billed as “the industry’s largest educational forum to help companies expand their businesses and understand new technology.”
Over 2,700 consumer technology companies – including audio, visual, eco-tech, home automation, cell phones and accessories – all flock to Vegas for a full week to show and tell the public about their latest product innovations. While 2010 was the year of eReaders and 2011 was the year of 3D television, this year clearly focused on expanding the capabilities of the interconnected home through mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.
What is the interconnected home? It’s based on the idea that the house and many of its devices can be seamlessly connected and communicating together in a symbiotic environment. This allows the consumer to remotely interact and control all the home’s devices through any internet-enabled device like a tablet or smartphone.
To demonstrate this concept, imagine the following scenario: From your office, you decide to check in on how the new puppy is doing on its first day home alone. Using your smartphone app, you take control of the camera-enabled robotic vacuum cleaner and drive it around the house in search of “Fido” only to find him sprawled on the couch chewing the cushions (bad dog!). Shouting “Get down! Bad dog!” through your vacuum’s bi-directional speaker system, you hear Fido whimper as he flies off the couch to seek refuge on his doggy bed in the corner. Pretty cool, huh? But wait, there’s more!
It’s 6:30 pm and time to head home. Since your location is synched with your house, compliments of your phone’s GPS feature, your home knows you’ll be arriving in about 35 minutes given current traffic conditions (thank you Google Maps®) and is able to automatically adjust its thermostat settings (let’s turn up the heat!), start the roast in your oven at 350 degrees (yum!) and begin the washing machine (since off-peak hours starts at 6 pm), so things are ready for you when you arrive.
Although this may sound far-fetched, many parts of this scenario are already here. To help fully comprehend just how “wired” and connected to the internet we really are, Cisco™ created a really good infographic to help illustrate this exact point. The fact that the number of internet-enabled devices surpassed the number of people on the planet is truly mind-boggling yet I need only take a brief look around my desk to see the evidence… two smart phones, one laptop, one 3G enabled tablet, and an iPod®.
This rapid pace towards unification and aggregation of wi-fi and internet enabled devices into and throughout the everyday activities of our lives is truly amazing. But have you stopped to consider the implications of this kind of massive centralization of consumer devices? What does a company that manufactures kitchen appliances and televisions really know about networking and ensuring that the devices you’re plugging into are really secure? How do these companies protect you, your network and the critical data on the network from your neighbor’s prying eyes?
Remember, if the television is connected to your home network, it is connected to and has access to all of the devices on your network, including your router and computers. This means if I successfully hack into your television’s networking capabilities I will also have gained complete access to your network.
You may not appreciate the difference between WEP and WPA2-PSK-AES-CCMP wireless security protocols, but if your device manufacturers don’t understand the difference then their consumers will be more vulnerable to hacks.
While walking around the different booths at CES, I would often ask vendors what protocol they used to secure their devices. Needless to say, I was underwhelmed by a majority of the responses since it was clear to me that the most common path to security taken was to deploy the easiest to implement (and hack) security protocols. Security, like many things, lives by the rule that it is only as strong as its weakest link. So when integrating a wireless router with several devices, all with different strengths of encryption, you will be forced to deploy security at the level of the weakest link to ensure that all devices can communicate together.
So if you’re a techie like me who has to have all the latest and greatest, what should you do? Here is my short list for safely integrating devices into your home:
- Know what kind of security protocol your device uses before you purchase it.
- Configure the different device’s security protocols to the highest level possible (WPA2 is stronger than WPA), not the lowest (like WEP).
- Change your device’s default passwords from “admin” and “password” and create a strong password.
- When in doubt get help — consult your owner’s manual for that free 800-support line or hire an expert if your product doesn’t provide free support.
While I am proficient at setting up networks and their security, I know that I have no business installing a new water heater. Although I could try to do this on my own, it will be well worth my time and frustration to ensure I solicit someone else with the right qualifications and know how to do it for me and do it correct. That is well worth my peace of mind and my hundred dollars.