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Internet of Things security check: How 3 smart devices can be dumb about the risks

Robert Lemos | Feb. 23, 2015
Smartwatches, smart homes, smart connected cars: All carry software vulnerabilities that could impact your privacy or safety. But you can be smart about knowing the risks before you buy.

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Internet of Things security is no longer a foggy future issue, as more and more such devices enter the market--and our lives. From self-parking cars to home automation systems to wearable smart devices, analysts currently estimate that some 50 billion to 200 billion devices could be connected to the Internet in 2020. Google CEO Eric Schmidt told world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, "there will be so many sensors, so many devices, that you won't even sense it, it will be all around you," he said. "It will be part of your presence all the time."

That's hardly comforting when you consider how many of these smart devices still seem to be pretty dumb about security. A study by HP of ten popular IoT devices--including smart TVs, webcams and home automation devices--found an average of 25 security flaws per device. Seven of the ten devices had serious vulnerabilities.

Three smart devices with dumb security risks
Three of the hottest IoT categories offer examples of the risks. The Withings Activité Pop, shown off at CES, is an analog watch that records a user's daily habits, including sleep time, steps, swimming and other activities. Yet one Symantec study of sports bands and smart watches found the majority lacked privacy policies, nearly all connected to a cloud service, and 20 percent sent passwords without encrypting them.

Home automation faces the same issues. A 2013 report, for example, found significant vulnerabilities and poorly secured default configurations in home automation from vendors such as Belkin, Insteon, Linksys and Sonos. One intrepid reporter even used the information from the research to contact users and demonstrate that she could control their homes.

Some manufacturers are listening. Lock maker Kwikset, for example, has created a touchscreen deadbolt lock that uses a smudge-resistant touchpad, making it more difficult for an attacker to attempt to discern a homeowner's code from fingerprint residue left on the keypad.

Often, however, policymakers have to prod the industry to create better protections for consumers. Take BMW's self-parking car demoed at CES (and expected to come out as a feature about 2020). A car that can drive itself could also be hijacked by attackers. In a presentation at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas last August, two researchers--Charlie Miller, a security engineer with Twitter, and Chris Valasek, director of vehicle security research with security services firm ioActive--studied 19 different models of cars and found vulnerabilities in every vehicle. The researchers also showed that they could take control of the cars with self-steering mechanisms.


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