Your smart home is a futuristic marvel, but when cameras can be hacked to spy on us, microphones on smart speakers can be manipulated with lasers, and smart plugs can compromise entire security systems, it’s understandable if you have reservations about connecting your house to the internet.
But there’s no need to avoid the benefits of smart home devices entirely. The trick is to understand the risks and take advantage of available security features. Whether you have a full network of smart kitchen appliances or just a simple voice assistant, there are steps you can take to ensure no one messes with your stuff.
Consider What You Need
Before you rush to order a smart speaker, thermostat, or video doorbell, consider your comfort level when it comes to balancing convenience with security and privacy. A security camera might offer some form of protection, but are you okay with footage being uploaded to the internet? A voice assistant like Alexa never sleeps, always listening for your command. Is that creepy or a perk? Figure out what you need from a smart home, and where, for you, privacy trumps convenience.
Secure Your Wi-Fi Network
Out of the box, most routers are either not secured or use a generic password like “admin,” making it easy for hackers to poke around and access devices that are connected to your router. So the first thing you should do is secure your Wi-Fi network with a strong password. How you do that varies slightly by device, but the basics are the same; here’s how to get started.
Many routers also use a model-specific name that hackers may be able to easily identify. So consider changing the SSID (Service Set Identifier), which is just the name of your Wi-Fi network (like PCMag_Home).
Manage Your Account Passwords
Now that you have secured the Wi-Fi network, you need to also protect the individual devices and services that connect to it. Many smart devices are controlled through a connected mobile app, and you’ll need to set up an account with each one. Using the same password for everything is convenient, but it’s a security nightmare. If one of those accounts is breached and the password exposed, hackers now potentially have the keys to all the other accounts on which you used that password. Just ask Disney+ and Nest camera users. Instead, use a random password generator to produce hard-to-guess codes and a password manager to remember them for you
Enable Two-Factor Authentication
Strong passwords are one thing, but you can take it one step further by enabling two-factor authentication on the services that support it. Those accounts will then require your password, plus a second form of authentication—usually a six-digit code sent via text message or generated via an authenticator app like Google Authenticator or Authy. So even if a hacker gets their hands on your password, they won’t be able to log in to your account without that six-digit code.
Many smart home devices support 2FA, including Amazon Echo, Arlo, Google Nest, Ring, and many more. Our guide runs through who has it and how to set it up.
Firmware is the low-level software that powers your router and other Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets. Companies roll out bug fixes and new features over the internet, and many devices automatically update when connected to Wi-Fi. But others require you to proactively tap or click that “update” button to get the latest goodies and security patches. Don’t ignore these updates; configure your device to automatically update or set a reminder to check for updates regularly. Running older firmware versions could leave your device vulnerable to hackers looking to exploit unpatched flaws.
Amazon, Arlo, Google, Ring, Wyze, and others have details about how to check and update your firmware.
Replace Outdated Routers
Chances are, you’ve probably updated your smartphone and maybe your laptop in the last few years. But what about your router? Has it been gathering dust on a shelf for far too long? If your internet performance is not yet suffering, the security of your connected devices almost certainly is. An aging router means aging security protocols, and an easier access point for bad actors. If you need some suggestions, check out PCMag’s roundups of the best routers, the best gaming routers, and the best Wi-Fi mesh networks.
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