In today’s world, many popular digital gifts come in non-existent packages. But if delivering your loved ones a bunch of zeros and ones seems a little on the cold side, there’s good news: the internet now likes to take up physical space too, incarnated in the form of Things. Internet of Things (IoT) products, often simply referred to as “smart” devices, are objects to place in your home or wear on your body that can connect to the internet and are usually also controlled by your phone.

IoT devices aren’t just a trend, they are smart and capable, and though they have a somewhat patchy security history, they’re here to stay. Plus, good smart devices can add value to your life if you know how to find the ones that best suit your needs. In honor of Mother’s Day, we’ll discuss IoT devices and their security issues, and take a look at some products that you might be inclined to buy for your lovely mom. Just remember, we’re not saying you should or shouldn’t buy any of these items, but merely that they could easily find their way onto your gift list, so we’d like you to shop smart.

It’s cool, but is it secure?

Right off the bat, ask yourself that question, and then ask yourself, “is it actually useful”? IoT devices are smart, sexy, and very seductive, and if you’re in a giddy shopping mood, you could very easily buy a device that is either not very useful, not very secure, or, most likely, some dreadful combination of the two.

Smart devices: General advice

We all love the spirit of innovation, heck, that’s what gave birth to these cool devices. But it also leads to some shady copies of products, usually for a much lower price. And what’s worse: the more famous original versions of these products are also in danger of being hacked.

When you’re looking for an IoT device, we’d advise you to take a thorough look at what’s available. To be a responsible gift-giver, you may have to do a wee bit of research. For a specific type of product, check out the ones that are the most popular (hint: they’re usually on the pricier end).

Sometimes big companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon have a dominant product in a certain area, but don’t just assume they’re the best for you simply because of brand-name recognition. Ultimately, good IoT products exist from both new or established brands, and both startups and big corporations are capable of being hacked and being wanton with your collected data. With that in mind, here are a few tips to remember before buying an IoT device.

  • Check out the device’s capabilities. That means, the smarter and cooler it is (i.e. equipped with sound and vision) the bigger the security risk it may be. You should consider if you’ll actually use all the features, because if there's a hackable feature you won't use, don't buy a product that has it. The tricky irony here is that low and high price items are both compromisable. A smaller price could mean fewer security features, while a higher price could mean more hackable features. So safety really varies by the product, even within a given brand.
  • Check out a wide swath of reviews. See if both the complaints and the exclamations of ecstasy are backed up by evidence and security considerations. We’re not saying the best reviews are always from paranoid people, but it’s good to check for opinions that rest somewhere in between.
  • Spend time on the product’s website. And actually make sure the product has a website at all, since cheaper products that are sold through vendors might not even have one or have much written about them online. If there is a site, check to see that security info is readily available on it and that you don’t have to do too much digging.

Let’s take a look now at some smart gifts that may end up in your Mother’s Day shopping basket and the security risks connected with them.

The basics

How about a simple TV? A TV might sound straightforward enough, but it is highly possible you or your mom might buy a smart TV and not realize all the things that come with those two simple letters. Smart people like to make connections between things, and guess what, so do smart devices. In fact, making connections with other devices is practically a smart device’s favorite thing to do. Can you blame these sleek, intelligent devices for wanting to mingle in a back room and share your data for profit over a couple of cold ones?

But back to TVs. The Samsung Smart TV wants to give you full home alerts: turn on the vacuum, start the wash, check the thermostat (all these assuming you have a home full of other smart devices). Does your mom really need a TV that can do these things? Needless to say, smarting-out your entire home could become an expensive addiction. If you’re fairly certain that your mom has no interest in getting a washing machine with artificial intelligence built into it so she can connect it to her smart TV, then maybe save your money and get a non-smart TV. However, these days, actually getting a brand new non-smart TV might be rather hard to do. Many new TVs are now 4K and smart— but the word “smart” is usually included in their description, so you should be able to tell.

If you do end up buying a smart TV and don’t wish to use its features, make sure you disable them upon setting up the TV. Bottom line: with all these smart devices, you have to get smart about what you buy and how you set it up. Don’t just plug a device in and start using it. Take a little care when setting it up, and you will be more secure for it.

Fitness

Why should your lovely mom be denied a hot bod? ‘Tis not a privilege but a right. Well Fitbit has become kind of synonymous with wearable health monitors. Their signature product is a multifunctional bracelet that mom can keep on all the time if she so chooses. Most of their wristbands even have features tailored to women’s health. But, as we said about TVs, if you’re not ready to go all in on the fanciest devices, it’s worth noting that different fitness trackers cater to different needs, such as running or swimming, so you may not have to pay for all the features. For example, Fitbit itself is up against the pricey Apple Watch 4, which does fitness and a whole lot of other things to justify the extra cost. As for security, wearable fitness trackers have been around for nearly a decade now, and have made significant security improvements in that time.

Smart homes: When devices can see and/or hear you

Has your mom ever said to your dad, “Dear, pick up a carton of milk,” and he thought she said, “Go drink a Coke and have a pill”? Well, the Amazon Echo, doesn't have perfect auditory receptors either. The Echo smart speaker gained a measure of notoriety in 2018 when it was reported that it accidentally sent a recording of a family’s conversation to one of their contacts.

If you do decide to get your mom a smart speaker like the Echo or Google Home, we’d caution her not to make a lot of voice-operated bank transactions with it. If she’s doing her best Marlon Brando impression and decides to mumble, the Echo could (with the most innocent of intentions) eagerly give her pin number to a scammer. This sounds a bit sci-fi, but it can happen.

Other instances have been reported of IoT devices with cameras being hijacked (we’re looking at you, baby monitor cams). For context, though, your laptop is a much more likely, more profitable field of battle for scammers. So, getting really freaked out about smart devices because of the creepy sci-fi attacks that might be possible is kind of misguided. However, if you’re concerned about being directly spied on in your own home, small chance though it may be, stick to IoT devices that can’t see or hear you.

Thermostats: Warm family moments

If you want to rather selfishly give mom something that can benefit the whole family, then you may be inclined to buy a smart thermostat. A popular brand is Nest, and they’ve kind of set the standard for thermostats which aren’t just functional, but tastefully designed to look good in your house (let’s face it, thermostats usually don’t garner much aesthetic praise). Positive features of smart thermostats are that temperature can be adjusted from the app on your phone (so, yeah, your hard-working mom doesn’t have to get out of bed to get comfortable) and the best part of all: they are designed to save energy, so they’re kind on your heating bill and good ol’ Mother Earth as well.

But realize that the upsides to this smart device can also be its downsides, which is really the case with all IoT things. In order to be “smart”, the device collects user information, which means it learns your behavior patterns to give you what you want, and also what it needs to become more environmentally efficient. Remember, though, a lot of info about you is collected every time you surf the web (especially if you don’t use a VPN) so the fear is a bit relative.

Robovacs

Robovacs were once the stuff of sci-fi. Now they’re par for the floors. There are many IoT vacuums on the market, so compare reviews (a search will reveal that Eufy is the all-time best seller on Amazon.com). Most smart vacs scuttle across hardwood or carpet, staying within boundaries, and are quieter than normal vacuums. And like most IoT devices, the best robovacs can be controlled from your smartphone. You know what they say, “once you go robovac, you may never go roboback”.

But, come to think of it, you may have no need for something like a Fitbit if you don’t forsake physical activities like good ol’ non-smart vacuuming. One more irony of smart devices: the sublime laziness engendered by one device may cause the need for another device. And watch out: it’s also been reported that some robovacs can suck up more than just your dust, so be careful.

Photo albums

If you don’t want your mom to forget about you, you can send your beautiful face right to a smart picture frame. While we may miss the tactile photo albums of old, those cumbersome days of having to haul little celluloid rolls over to some stranger at Photoworks are also kind of done. Now you can cringe over the fact that online strangers might see your photos. But anyway, at least now you can exercise some influence over the unsanctioned photos of yourself that your mom would so eagerly adorn the house with. Don’t want mom’s friends to see you amoebic and diapered? You can send her your snazziest pre-approved selfies and snaps from your smartphone, and she will have no choice but to display them in something like the Nixplay frame.

Are you now wondering if some clever hacker could hijack your mom’s innocent picture frame and fill it with digital graffiti of god-knows-what nature? Well Nixplay has an example of the kind of security vetting details you should look for with any smart device here. In this instance that means the manufacturer blocks the device from public access and encrypts the channel for sending photos.

Safety is the first and last word

It might seem like a pain in the neck to deal with gifts that have so many security caveats, but since smart devices aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, the best thing you can do is get yourself and your dear mom in the habit of protecting these items just as you would a computer. Remember: though they may look user-friendly and simple, with smart devices, there is always more than meets the eye.

After you buy an IoT product, make sure you do whatever you can to keep it secure. This includes giving the device a super long password that is hard to crack, plus, we recommend using 2-factor authentication. Securing your home router by resetting the password is also an integral part of protecting all your smart devices.

Happy shopping! 

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