All I Want For Christmas Is Safe IoT

When you open presents this Christmas, there’s a very good chance that there will be gizmos that connect to the Internet. Toys, appliances, home security devices, cameras (both regular cameras and security cams); what doesn’t connect these days?

This is the “IoT” – the Internet of Things.

This is, of course, the same Internet that you use to surf the web, order needed things, and do your banking. And because you do those things, you’ve learned to be at least aware of Internet security.

Having IoT devices in your home is mostly a boon to fun and convenience, but IoT can also be a serious crack in your Internet security. All IoT devices, no matter how trivial they seem, are computers that communicate on the Internet – and they can all be invaded and commandeered by pirates and hackers. It’s just not safe to assume IoT devices are secure, because, in fact, they are not.

When you use the Internet, you deal with sensitive data – banking, shopping – and, even just surfing the web you expose private information about yourself. It follows, then, that you need to make sure that the IoT devices you invite into your home are safe to begin with, and that they are setup properly to protect themselves and, as much as possible, you and your family.

Before connecting an IoT device, check to see if it supports security protocols – and which ones. If none, then you don’t want it in your house. Period. It should, at minimum, be renamable and have a password that you can – and must – change.

Because IoT devices are computers, they have software. And from time to time, software needs to be updated. How easy are your IoT devices to update? (It should be easy, but even better would be automatic – and frequent.)

Because these devices all transmit data back to their makers, check to make sure that the providers have a proper privacy policy, and a reputation for upholding it.

Leaving IoT devices unsecured is the Internet equivalent of leaving your house unlocked. When IoT comes to your house, you, personally, need to make it secure. Here are some things to do or consider:

Change the Password!

Seriously, you must do this. There are lists online of the default passwords for every imaginable IoT device.

Pick unique passwords and use a different password for every device. Even if you just change a number in the password for each device, do it! (Make it a weird number, like a series from your favorite multiplication table. Like, “0PassTree,” “9PassTree,” “18PassTree,” “27PassTree.” You get the idea. Make them different!

If a hacker figures out one of your passwords, they will try it with other services and devices. Count on it. Reusing passwords is not a good idea.

Update Your Devices to the Latest Firmware.

Firmware is the software that is loaded into device hardware to make it work. When you first setup new IoT devices, follow the maker’s instructions to be sure that you have the latest updates. If there’s an option to automatically update the firmware, make sure that it is selected.

Vulnerabilities and malware exploits will be fixed as the maker discovers them, so your IoT and other devices need to be regularly updated. Use “automatic” wherever possible, but if that’s not an option, set a schedule for yourself to check for updates every month or so.

Consider a Separate Network.

Most Wi-Fi routers support a “Guest” network that is isolated from your household computers and such. Consider using this network for IoT devices that don’t need access to your printers. This kind of separation works well for IoT devices that have questionable security.

Be Wary About External Internet Services.

Make sure you check out the service provider’s privacy policy and reputation. Look for assurance that they encrypt and promise to protect your data. (Think Equifax.)

Be Wary of Strange Devices on Your Network.

If friends, and kids’ friends, bring Internet-connected devices to your home, remember that you don’t know what malware these devices have been exposed to. Offer them the use of your Guest network, but don’t give them access to yours.

I hope I haven’t scared you away from the IoT. The conveniences and amusements it brings are many and worthy. Just try to stick to these rules, and have a safe and jolly IoT Christmas!

Hoping, as always, that this is all quite clear and useful; nevertheless if I can fill in some details or help with anything on your computers, please don’t hesitate to call.

Mike Pepper, The Computer Guy, has been providing software and hardware support in New York and Connecticut for more than 35 years. He can be reached at: