It’s official: we’re living in the future. What was once the stuff of sci-fi epics is now sitting in your living room. Your house speaks to you through the AI voice of Siri or Alexa. Your smart sneakers lace themselves up at the touch of a button on your phone. Your toilet paper roll knows when it’s running low and orders more automatically. We might not have flying cars yet, but technology is getting pretty impressive these days. But does that mean we should plunge headfirst into the deep end of smart devices? Have you stopped to consider the downsides (because unfortunately, there are many) to these snazzy new inventions?

How smart is it to use smart devices?

We now have access to a world of smart gadgets that can work together seamlessly to automate many aspects of our lives. IoT (Internet of Things) devices are advertised as the ultimate helpful technology. But with great power comes great responsibility...and just how responsible are your smart devices being with your security and personal data?

Unlike in some sci-fi flicks, your smart devices won’t gain sentience and conspire to betray you (hopefully)...but they can leave you extremely vulnerable to hackers and security breaches. Too many companies focus on coming up with the Next Big Thing...and in their race to be first on the market, they sacrifice security along the way.

So the next time you’re shopping for a new gadget, think twice before buying one of these five types of risky IoT devices. Plus, read on for tips on how to better secure the smart devices you already own.

Avoid these 5 types of smart items

1. Off-brand IoT gadgets

When shopping for a new IoT device, you might find an off-brand option that’s far below the price of its well-known competitors. What may seem like a great deal at first could actually be a huge security risk. Cheap, off-brand devices are less likely to have software or firmware updates and tech support, which makes them much more vulnerable to hacks in the long run. It’s better to spend a bit more and be safer.

2. Smart toys for kids

Giving your kids smart toys can leave everyone vulnerable to cyber attacks. Many parents don’t think about setting up authentication or other security measures on something like a teddy bear, but when that teddy bear can get online, it needs privacy protections. Toy companies like CloudPets and Barbie have experienced hacks that exposed the personal information of parents and their kids. There have been similar security breaches via children’s toys all over the world.

Even more alarmingly, IoT devices with cameras or voice recording capabilities can be misappropriated for spying. Whether it’s animal toys, baby monitors, or nanny cams, make sure to secure these devices before using them with your children.

3. Second-hand smart devices

It’s not a great idea to pick up used smart items on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, since they may be infected with malware from their previous use. Or, they might just not work that well. You won’t be able to know if the previous owner of a gadget ditched it due to issues with connectivity, functionality, or something else. So it’s best to buy new (and always read reviews before you select a smart device!).

4. Smart wine aerators (and other unnecessary novelty items)

Smart wine aerators include a companion app that allows you to select the exact level of oxygen you desire each time you pour a nice glass of vino. Do you really need this in your life? It may sound like a joke, but hackers can gain access to unsecured devices and recruit millions of them to stage large-scale DDoS (denial of service) attacks.

For example, the infamous 2016 Mirai attack brought down Twitter, Netflix, and many other internet behemoths using unsecured IoT devices like digital cameras. If you’re considering buying a connected wine aerator, a smart toaster, or even a smart dental floss dispenser (yes, these all exist), you may want to think carefully about whether the potential enhancement to your daily life is worth the security risk.

5. Devices that would be a “brick” in the case of a malfunction

Remember the smart shoes mentioned above? Well, when Nike launched their version of self-lacing sneakers, they didn’t do a good enough job making their app compatible with Android. Almost immediately after receiving them, angry Android customers were complaining that a forced software update rendered their shoes incapable of syncing with the app or tightening correctly. In fact, the shoes couldn’t even be adjusted manually, meaning people couldn’t tie their shoes at all.

To make sure you don’t end up with a bunch of expensive paperweights, it’s important to ensure that the devices you buy would retain at least some functionality if their smarts malfunction or if the power goes out. You don’t want to be unable to unlock your door during a power outage, for example.

How to protect your smart devices

It’s not all bad news. IoT devices can be wonderful innovations that bring simplicity and organization to our lives — they just need to be secured properly. Luckily, there are a few easy steps you can take to make your home and your gadgets safer.

1. Secure your router

First of all, make sure your router is secure. If it’s not, it can open you up to lots of security threats (both on your IoT devices and your computer). So make sure you’re not using default settings; it needs a strong, unique password. You’ll also want to turn on WPA2 encryption and disable remote access services in order to close some potential doors for hackers.

2. Use unique passwords on every device

Each individual device also needs a unique username and password. Yes, everything. If hackers gain access to something that you might think of as insignificant (like a connected coffee maker, for example) they can easily gain access to your entire network and everything on it.

3. Stay up-to-date

Keeping your devices up-to-date is the best way to make sure their software and firmware aren’t vulnerable. When companies issue updates, it’s to fix problems or plug security holes. So even if it might be annoying to get the notification, you really shouldn’t ignore new updates when they become available. Install the update right away (or make sure your devices are set to update automatically). 

4. Disconnect devices if you’re not using them

If you realize that you haven’t been using that smart fork as much as you thought, go ahead and disconnect it. You can reduce your attack surface by taking items offline when they’re not in use.

5. Don’t throw your old gadgets in the trash

...and if you’re really never using a device and decide to get rid of it, don’t just chuck it in the trash bin. First of all, you should never throw laptops, desktops, or mobiles in the trash anyway, and IoT devices are no different. Hackers can find smart items in dumpsters and learn a disturbing amount of personal information about you. Even old smart light bulbs can reveal a lot about you when infiltrated.

So, you should first check the device’s website and see if it has a way to wipe off your data completely. Follow whatever procedures they suggest. Failing that, you can always take a hammer to it to really be sure your info is gone.

There are now 7 billion IoT devices in use worldwide and that number is estimated to reach 50 billion by 2022. That same year, the average North American home is projected to have 500 connected gadgets. That’s a lot of opportunities hackers could exploit. So be smart about your IoT use and take the appropriate security measures. Then you can go back to enjoying your interconnected home – and that 100% perfectly aerated glass of wine.

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