Alexa, protect my privacy

Take steps to keep speakers, security cameras and other smart devices safe from hackers who want to steal your data—or worse.

  • By Lisa Gerstner,
  • Kiplinger
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Theresa Payton is CEO of security consulting company Fortalice Solutions, cofounder of Dark Cubed, a cybersecurity product company, and former chief information officer for the White House.

Reports circulated recently that hackers had accessed Ring home security cameras and used them to speak to and taunt their owners. Why are crooks interested in smart devices? Investigations into these events are ongoing, but we know that a forum was set up online where hackers were livestreaming some of the things that they were doing, ostensibly to show the dangers of these types of devices. It was a violation of privacy and very scary for the victims, but we really haven't seen yet how these devices could be used to conduct economic and political espionage. You may think that your day-to-day life is boring and inconsequential, but you could be connected to somebody hackers consider a valuable target.

Another possibility is that hackers could gather the blueprints necessary to break in and enter a home. Hackers may, for example, grab videos and snapshots of how a home's security alarm is set and accessed. You don't have to put on a tinfoil hat, but you should use these devices with caution.

Why are these devices vulnerable? Manufacturers want them to be simple to use. Security safeguards can be cumbersome, and customers may abandon a device if they have to go through 15 steps before they can use it. Plus, the components for that cool device you just got probably came from at least 20 different companies. The challenge is to make a device secure, easy to use and sold for a price customers are willing to pay. The industry is working to improve, but unfortunately, protecting security and privacy rests largely on consumers' shoulders right now.

What security features should consumers look for? Ask some questions before you buy. Does the product encrypt your data? If it doesn't, look for another product. Can you change the default password to one that's difficult to guess? I've seen cases in which you can't. Will the device update itself automatically with the latest privacy and security patches, or is it on you to do that? And is two-factor authentication an option? Check out the strength of a company's customer service, too. One way to do that is to look up its social media accounts. Is the company responsive to users who are having problems?

How can I find products that measure up? Big-name companies, such as Amazon and Google, usually build those features into their devices. When I'm looking into buying a gadget, I like to check Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included website. Mozilla puts gadgets through their paces to see how well they protect user privacy.

What else can consumers do to make these devices more secure? If you don't know whether your devices are automatically retrieving the latest security patches, the best way to ensure that they get the updates is to turn them off periodically and unplug your router, then plug the router in and turn the devices back on. Pick a regular household activity, such as paying bills, and tack this on to your routine. Also, hide your home Wi-Fi network so that it’s invisible to others. If you're not sure how to that, call your internet service provider. If my family is about to discuss something sensitive -- say, when we're going to go on a vacation -- we unplug our smart speaker from power and the internet.

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© 2020 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.
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