From election year email leaks to smart homes spying on homeowners, hacking is having a moment.
With the recent revelation that American intelligence agencies have allegedly developed clandestine techniques to turn phones and TVs against their users, hacking—the unwanted intrusion into our digital lives via our web-connected devices—has never been as hot as it is right now.
Add to the mix the general atmosphere of paranoia, buoyed by the current administration’s accusations of in-home espionage, and you can understand why smart home safety, of the IT variety, might be on the modern homeowner’s mind.
We’re here to offer peace of mind with some useful practices and products that will protect your “always online” home from internet evildoers…at least for the next six months—when the newest, not-yet-hack-proof devices enter your home or the CIA discovers how to turn stoves into surveillance equipment, whichever comes first.
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We should clarify from the start: Unless your name is Hillary Clinton or you are some other highly connected individual, 99.9% of smart home hackers will be going after one thing and one thing only—your money.
This means targeting devices that contain your credit card information, devices that connect to devices that contain your credit card information or devices that could prompt you to give over your credit card information.
Regardless of their goal (perhaps they just want your mother’s prized pecan pie recipe), the steps to thwarting would-be hackers remain the same.
Keep your devices up-to-date.
While seemingly a mundane process, full of the most sleep-inducing legalese, making sure each of your online-connected devices are running the most recent version of their firmware is the first and best defense against intrusion.
Hackers exploit infinitesimally small flaws in code to leverage control over devices or gain access to information. Developers work to address these cracks with subsequent updates—which is why you may find a multitude of frequent, or regularly scheduled, and somewhat minor updates for your favorite apps and devices.
Once a security risk has been deprecated, hackers target users employing older firmware versions while heading to the lab to work on the latest round of code.
In addition to keeping firmware current, regularly updating your passwords is a proactive defense against smart home hacking.
Hackers who are after information, financial or otherwise, want to sit on your network for as long as possible—this means they will look to leave a small digital footprint and cover every clandestine action they take.
By routinely updating the entry codes to your password-protected products and services (like Wi-Fi networks), you can lock out any interlopers who have taken root in your systems.
These protective procedures certainly aren’t the most exciting activities of your day (we hope), so it begs the question—how you will remember to enact them?
We recommend employing Todoist (free; premium features cost $29/year), a top-rated to-do list app with an easy-to-use interface that will keep you up-to-date with what’s on your plate, for months or years in advance. Better yet, Todoist pairs with smart home hubs like Google Home and Amazon’s Echo, so you can have today’s tasks, like “Check for an Alexa update,” read to you in a soothing synthetic voice.
As for keeping track of your ever-evolving array of passwords, apps like Dashlane (free; $40 for premium features), Keeper (free; $10 for premium features) and 1Password (free; $10 for premium features) will securely store your information and keep it protected even if you lose your smart device.
Our recommendation is Dashlane, which, if desired, will automatically generate new passwords for your connected services and, with a premium upgrade, allow you to back-up your information to the cloud and sync passwords across devices.
Whenever possible, you’ll want to use multi-factor authentication for your devices. With multi-factor authentication, users are sent a secondary, auto-generated password via email or text before they can access the desired product or service. Multi-factor authentication is far superior to standard password protection—the auto-generated code is different each time and a hacker would need to have access to many of your accounts to take advantage of it.
Finally, make sure you keep your devices separated. Most modern Wi-Fi routers offer the ability to set-up multiple networks. As the majority of hackers are looking to access your financial information, and are looking to do so via a weak point in your Wi-Fi network, it only makes sense to keep your less secure Internet of Things products, like your Wi-Fi connected coffee machine, on a separate home network from the devices that contain your most important information, like your laptop and phone.
Products of Protection
Humans only have so much capacity for virtual vigilance.
That is why the smartest among us have designed semi-sentient services, that require neither sleep nor sustenance, to serve our smart home security.
Here are your top options of automated protection, in descending order of device stylishness: The Norton Core, the Cujo and the BitDefender BOX.
Smart Home security systems, from left to right: The Norton Core, the Cujo, the BitDefender BOX
These products all share a number of security features, like anti-virus and anti-malware protection and protection of all connected devices.
The Cujo focuses more on “machine learning"—discovering how your connected devices behave and blocking actions that strays from that path.
The Norton Core is a security system-slash-Wi-Fi router hybrid that looks something like a geodesic home—but stylish. The Core, in addition to promising high-speed Wi-Fi service, places a premium on being both family-friendly and user-friendly, offering easy interfaces and a host of parental controls, in addition to security protocols, for your connected devices. The Core also offers users a "Security Score,” granting suburban dads the saddest measure about which to be competitive.
For our money (and yours), the best best is the BitDefender BOX.
The simple-to-set-up BOX constantly monitors every device that connects to your home network, be they villain, visitor or valued family member, and offers a one-click solution, sent directly to your smart device, to instantly boot any nefarious network types. Additionally, the BOX, via a year-to-year subscription, will outfit every device on your network with anti-virus software that will stop malware as it attempts to take root.
Better still, the BOX has your back when you venture out into the real world. BOX runs all your home network connections through a VPN (virtual private network) to protect you from the bad actors and plague-level viruses that may be lurking on public Wi-Fi networks.
The BOX will identify any devices it determines may be compromised, and isolate them from the other network connected devices, and employ real-time machine learning to address the new and different threats.
Finally, the BitDefenders BOX will keep on top of the best practices we outlined above—checking the strength of your passwords and the firmware versions of your various devices, as well as identifying any other back-door methods hackers might employ to grab your info.
It’s like the wild, wild west out there on the world-wide web, so give yourself a chance by being prepared, and remember: Never trust anyone claiming to be a Nigerian prince.