the Internet of thingsThe biggest buzzword of business operations and consumer electronics in the last three years is Internet of Things. As we explained in this post, Internet of Things (IoT) refers to essentially any device you have that can connect to the Internet or a network of “smart” devices which can share information with one another to automate processes in your life. This includes everything from your smartphone and smart TV to your activity tracker (like a Fitbit or Jawbone) and home security system. Since IoT is already a major part of our lives, we detailed five things you should know about it to help keep you and your privacy safe.

What you should know about the Internet of things

1. Opting out is getting harder. If avoiding the problem seems as simple as not buying smart devices, it’s becoming more complicated. Companies are increasingly making tons of devices, from coffee makers to cars, Internet-friendly. At some point these devices will be the majority of the market — something we already started seeing at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which displayed numerous IoT devices, such as smart cars, smart homes and even smart air fresheners.

2. Read the fine print. Hackers aren’t the only concern when it comes to privacy violations. Just like insurance companies, manufactures and software developers also want to learn more about their users by collecting their data. As such, provisions in their manuals and terms of usage might allow them to monitor you and use the data in undisclosed ways. For example, last year it was revealed that the privacy policy for Samsung’s Smart TVs stated the device could be recording your living room conversations with the voice-recognition feature — even when you’re not using it. While Samsung has since changed its privacy policy, it’s still rather concerning that this section was slipped in there to begin with.

The privacy and security of IoT devices is so much of an issue that Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez spoke on the topic at CES, encouraging developers of such devices to make security a top priority. So what can a consumer do to protect themselves? The best way to combat any privacy issues is to research a device’s privacy and data policy (as well as any connected apps or other software, as they will likely also store your information) before buying it. If you’re finding the terms of use or privacy policy are not as transparent as you’d like them to be, you can always contact the company itself for clarification or opt out of using such a device, although that may be easier said than done.

3. Be selective about device communication. “Don’t talk to strangers” may seem like advice that only applies to humans, but it’s actually something that can be equally as important for devices. While it may seem safe (and fiscally responsible if you have a limited data plan) to allow your device to automatically connect to every device or network it picks up, it isn’t the wisest plan, as you will never know if those connections are secure. That’s why it’s essential for you to turn off Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or geolocation on any device when you’re not actively using them. If you don’t, you could be making one the biggest security mistakes that can not only reveal information about your device, but also put your identity at risk. That’s because passive scanners and other makeshift devices hackers use can actually read or communicate with wireless devices, even those not on the Internet.

It should be noted that if you are connecting two of your own devices using a secured Wi-Fi network with a strong password at home, then your chances of getting hacked are slimmer than if you were in a coffee shop connecting the devices using public Wi-Fi. That said, it’s important to remember that any time you’re sharing information with a known device (like a friend’s phone or your computer), you could also be putting your device in harm’s way. If the other device is compromised by a hacker or infected with malware, your device may also be susceptible to that threat — meaning your information can be discovered.

4. One device could jeopardize them all. Because IoT is networked, a router could compromise all devices (TVs, computers, tablets, baby monitors, phones, etc.) connected to the network as well as all information sent and received using the network. While software developers often create patches to solve router security flaws, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that these patches are not always implemented. As described by the article, “the chain can break at many points: Patches aren’t distributed. Users aren’t alerted or neglect to apply the patch. Hackers exploit any weak link.” How can you protect yourself? First, make sure that you assign a strong password to your Wi-Fi network and change it regularly — at least once every three to four months. Next, make sure you download security patches as soon as you’re alerted to them, as they are designed to fix a specific flaw in the software.

5. Stay on top of updates. Similar to staying on top of updates to your router, it’s equally as important to make sure you remain up-to-date on patches and updates for all of your smart devices — they’re intended to protect your device from known harm, as described in our guide to software updates. Since it can sometimes be a challenge to remember to download an update, it’s usually best to complete it as soon as you’re alerted to it, even if it’s not the most convenient time. If you can, opt to enable auto-downloads so patches will be installed as soon as they’re available. Also make sure that you’re frequently on the lookout for vulnerabilities with your devices via the news, manufacture’s website or user communities. Similarly, if you’re considering purchasing a new device, you may want to research using those sources to see if the device has known security flaws and how the company manages such flaws. Remember that your network is only as secure as your least secure device — just one compromised device is capable of infiltrating any of the other machines and networks it communicates with. That’s why you must update your devices frequently and be selective about which IoT products you buy.

While nothing can guarantee the safety of smart devices, understanding these five things can help consumers remain in-the-know for potential flaws as the Internet of things becomes a larger part of their lives. Keep up with our technology blog to learn more about the Internet of Things and get additional cybersecurity tips.