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How “Connected” Should You Make Your New Home?

Living in Silicon Valley, I’m constantly exposed to the latest gadgets, advancements and gotta-have apps. In March 2013 I covered a tech conference in San Francisco and fell under the spell of a connected thermostat. Now, this is no ordinary thermostat — it allows you to adjust the temperature remotely from your phone, pays attention to when you want your home warmer or cooler, learns from experience, and starts adjusting itself accordingly. I was smitten. I vowed that if I ever needed a new thermostat I was getting this one.

Jump forward two years to my hallway, as I oversee the work of a technician installing a new thermostat. My only admonition? “Make sure it’s not connected — I don’t want my home hacked!” Given the opportunity, I opted out of the Internet of Things.

What happened during those two years? Target, Home Depot, Anthem Blue Cross — to name just a few.

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I’m not the only person who’s skittish. 

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the chairwoman of the FTC, Edith Ramirez, told attendees, “Any device that is connected to the Internet is at risk of being hijacked…And, as we purchase more smart devices, they increase the number of entry points an intruder could exploit to launch attacks on or from. Moreover, the risks that unauthorized access create intensify as we adopt more and more devices linked to our physical safety, such as our cars, medical care, and homes.”

A New York Times article warned about malware that delivers “a virus that can co-opt your computer and put it to work as part of a botnet. A botnet is a giant network of computers linked together to break codes or passwords or initiate distributed denial-of-service attacks that can take down entire sites.” Once your home is penetrated through your computer, your connected thermostat, refrigerator, home security system and other home electronic devices can become part of the botnet.

In other words, criminals can use your smart TV to help them pull-off the next big data breach.

While I chose to opt-out of the Internet of Things, millions of Americans are opting-in. FTC Chairwoman Ramirez said during her CES speech that “the number of smart home devices will reach nearly 25 million” this year.

If you’re designing and building a new home from the ground up, you have the opportunity to create a home that automates tasks. For example, if you typically get up at 6:30 each morning a smart home can awaken you with an alarm, raise the blinds, turn on the lights, turn on music or the TV, and start a fresh pot of coffee.

Smart homes can also do utilitarian things such as shut off the water if there’s a leak, close air vents if no one is in the room and turn off stoves.

Safety Tips

If you view hackers as electronic terrorists and you’ve taken a vow to not let the terrorists win, then you may be ready to give your home a Ph.D. in smart technology. If so, proceed with caution. Alarm.org, a website run by the Electronic Security Association (ESA) — a professional trade association in the U.S. that represents the electronic life safety, security and integrated systems industry — has compiled this list of safety measures for your smart home.

Lock Down the Wi-Fi

Use a strong password and update it regularly. “If the wireless router allows it, set up a couple of private Wi-Fi networks – one for connected home devices and another for computers, tablets and smartphones – and disable guest access.”

Be Conscious of Connected Devices

Understand the access each device requires. Disable any ports, IP addresses or network protocol to which the device does not need access to function. When shopping for devices, make sure they do automatic security patches. If not, keep shopping.

Smart Phone Savvy

A phone or tablet is an essential element of a connected home, controlling your stuff with apps.  Make sure your phone automatically locks and safeguard your password. Also, stay off public Wi-Fi.  You could literally be handing the keys to your house to a stranger — one that’s already proven to be dishonest by stealing your information. Don’t let them steal everything else.

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