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Smart home security guide: protecting your IoT-connected house

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As of September 2020, approximately 66% of burglaries took place in residential areas. And over half of those burglaries took place during daylight when people were gone the most (though it’s still unclear how this may have changed after the pandemic-induced work-from-home shift).

Even though the number has decreased from previous years, the data shows the risk to Americans’ homes and personal property is all too real. But what can homeowners do to protect themselves, and their homes, from an invasion? That’s where home security systems come in.

Out of 127.59 million households in the United States, only 36 million have installed home security systems. That’s less than 30% of households who have taken the extra precaution to ensure their family’s safety. Installing a security system can help reduce the number of home invasions. After installing a home security system, homeowners and renters are given a bigger sense of security knowing there are eyes on their homes at all times. Home security systems are so effective that 60% of incarcerated burglars who were interviewed stated that they would “seek out an alternative target if an alarm were detected.”

Whether you already have a security system installed or are deciding whether or not they’re for you, understanding how to get the most of your system is a must. Let’s take a closer look at the best practices to consider when utilizing a home security system.

The “Internet of Things” and how it impacts home security

The “Internet of Things” or IoT is taking regular essential household items, like refrigerators, dishwashers, thermostats, televisions and radios, and incorporating the ability to connect to the internet — making them “smart” devices that can read and share data through the internet. A popular example of this is smart refrigerators. Some refrigerators can take note of what items are in your fridge and relay this information back to you — making grocery shopping easier and more efficient.

Another example is a home security system. Homes that are connected via the internet to home security systems can provide images of the interior or exterior of the home, update owners on which doors or windows are open or locked and relay any security breaches in real-time.

It is important to keep in mind that if your home internet or power goes out your smart home security system will not work until power and internet are restored. If you do have a home security system as a part of your IoT inventory, it is crucial to ensure you have a strong internet connection at all times. If not, this could create security risks and product malfunctions.

General best practices for smart home tech

Each smart device will come with specific instructions. However, there are common best practices that owners of smart devices should implement to keep the device safe and secure. Similar to mobile phones, it is important to research any application you are downloading to your smart device to be sure it isn’t a scam. The same goes for any other home device that allows you to download apps. 

Other best practices for your IoT devices include:

  • Changing the “wake word” that is used to activate/wake up your device
  • Connecting to a trusted internet provider
  • Creating a password that is strong and unique, yet easy to remember
  • Keeping your devices and software up to date
  • Paying attention to who/what your devices are connected to. If you aren’t able to identify a connection, remove it immediately 
  • Refraining from connecting your debit and/or credit cards to your devices, if possible
  • Reviewing the security settings and choosing ones that you’re comfortable with
  • Reviewing and understanding the device’s privacy policy
  • Using at least two different factors for your device authentication

Remember to thoroughly read the instruction manual to get a better understanding of the best practices for that specific device.

Cameras, doorbells and smart locks

Whether it’s a camera, doorbell system or smart lock, users can select the smart security system that meets their needs.

  • Security Cameras: One of the most basic ways to enhance your home’s security is by placing security cameras around the perimeter. When shopping for a security camera you will want to find one that has a night mode, motion-activated and is easy to install, like the Arlo Pro 3 Floodlight Camera. When installing the camera you will want to find areas on the outside of your home that will properly accommodate a camera. For example by your front door, garages, hidden in corners by the roof, etc. If desired, you can also purchase an indoor camera for extra security.
  • Security Doorbells: Security doorbells, like the Ring Pro, offer a two-way communication system for residents and people approaching their homes. Not only does it work as a security system but it also doubles as a standard doorbell as well.
  • Security Locks: Digital security locks can be installed on your door. That way only individuals who have access to the code can enter your home.

All of which can help mitigate physical security threats but are still at risk of network and internet breaches. To prevent this, it is important to educate yourself on internet safety and properly install your home security device.

Smart thermostats and other smart home devices

Aside from standard smart security technology like cameras and doorbells, having other smart home devices like appliances, plugs/switches and lighting adds to the benefits of having a smart home. These benefits include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Control over aspects of your home remotely
  • The ability to manage all devices from one place
  • Maximization of your home security
  • Improved functionality of your appliances and devices
  • Increased energy efficiency
  • Insight into how your appliances and devices operate

With any device connected to a network, there are security and privacy concerns that come along with them. Take the best practices mentioned above into consideration when using multiple smart devices in your home. Refrain from storing personal data on these devices as much as possible to help double up on security measures. If you do find the need to store personal information, don’t worry — smart devices like lightbulbs, plug-ins and appliances are not inherently dangerous.

Digital personal assistants

Digital personal assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are great tools to help you get through daily activities. All it takes is a single voice command and you can turn on/off lights, take notes, play music, set alarms and much more with the help of your digital assistant. 

But how exactly do these digital assistants use this information? For starters, most (if not all) of these devices are linked to your mobile device. They’re constantly waiting for their awake word (i.e. “Hey Alexa”). Does this mean they’re constantly listening in? Technically, yes. Because of this, cybersecurity threats may be a concern to some users. To prevent falling victim to a hacker you must understand how your digital assistant device works. 

Understanding how digital personal assistants work

Each device is different — everything from the word(s) you need to say to wake it up, the type of commands it’ll do and how to get the most out of it. For most, you will need to create an account with the carrier. From there, you will link your device to your account — oftentimes controlled by your mobile device via the carrier app. 

This app will allow you to personalize your settings, manage the device’s activity and keep track of what is being searched. Typically, everything that is searched is logged and can be reviewed. It is only deleted when the user goes through and manually deletes it — unless an automatic deletion setting is set up prior.

Because your information is stored unless deleted you must know how to protect yourself against cybersecurity attacks.

  • Be mindful of what you share. Never tell your device your credit card information, passwords and/or other personal information
  • Wipe any critical data from your device that may cause a threat if left behind
  • Turn off the microphone when not in use
  • Disable the ability to purchase items using voice commands
  • Make sure your devices are updated and your internet is secure
  • Enable speech recognition
  • Create strong, memorable passwords

Before settling on a digital personal assistant, read reviews and product information sheets to see which one would be best for you and your security needs.

Smart TVs, streaming devices and gaming systems

Smart TVs, streaming devices (Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple Stick, etc.) and gaming systems are additional devices individuals can own to help make their house a smart home. While these items aren’t necessarily meant for home security, they still connect to the same network. Therefore it is just as important to pay attention to security and privacy concerns and implement best practices just like the other, more critical, devices.

How to secure your streaming devices

Users can download apps on most smart televisions and gaming consoles because they’re connected to the internet. Just as with anything else connected to the internet, these devices are at risk of being hacked into.

Viruses affecting smart TVs are rare. However, one particular area of concern is the user's data being sold to advertisers to help create more targeted ads. The FTC has made it mandatory for any streaming device, smart TV or gaming console to disclose whether or not they sell their user’s information to ad agencies.

To help protect yourself and your device from possible privacy issues users should:

  • Get familiar with their TV’s settings
  • Update their streaming service regularly
  • Cover up the camera on your TV or gaming console
  • Turn off your smart TV’s microphone when not in use
  • Create a strong, memorable password for all devices

If you feel that there are too many security risks associated with smart TVs, then you may want to reconsider your streaming option. Instead, using your mobile device to watch movies, stream sports and tune into your favorite channels, like Disney Plus, may be the better option for you.

Further reading and resources

If for any reason you do fall victim to a security breach, you will want to consider taking action and report any accounts of security vulnerability right away. Listed below are additional sources for individuals who need assistance reporting a crime regarding security breaches:

  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Identity Theft Recovery: If you or someone who knows has gotten their identity stolen due to a security breach, contact the FTC Identity Theft Recovery to file a report and recover your identity
  • Office for Victims of Crime (OVC): The OVC is a program led by the U.S. Department of Justice and is there to advocate for individuals who were victims of various crimes
  • USA.Gov: Report a crime directly using the USA.Gov website
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPCS): The CPCS is in charge of protecting citizens from any harm that may come from using thousands of consumer products

Even though security breaches on smart home devices aren’t super common, they still happen. If safety is your main goal when purchasing these tech items, then understanding how to use them properly and researching the device’s best practices is just as important as the device itself.

Keep your family safe by installing security cameras and limiting the amount of personal data that’s entered on other smart devices. Encourage your family to limit their screen time and educate them on the effects of sharing too much on the internet. And remember, no matter what security device you choose, your family’s safety is the most important — you must do all you can to ensure they and your home are secure on all bases.