As everything we do gets increasingly linked to the Internet, malicious actors have more and more ways to gain access to our personal information. From your laptop’s security settings to the open-access Wi-Fi at your favorite coffee shop, many points of entry are available. But one entry point you may not be aware of is the Internet of Things. Here, you’ll gain an understanding of what the Internet of Things is and why it could be such a vulnerable target for hackers worldwide.
What is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things – or IoT, for short – is the name for the physical devices that are constantly connected to an internet network. Most homes now have at least one Internet of Things device, and many homes have more than one. In fact, internet watchdogs estimate that over one billion IoT devices are in use worldwide.
If you’re a regular Amazon user, then you’ve probably seen one of the more popular IoT devices: the Amazon Echo. This internet-connected device answers questions, tells you the weather, and even plays music for you as requested. Other IoT devices include smart doorbells – connected to the Internet so they can ping your smartphone when someone is at the door – and thermostats that can activate the air condition when you tell it you’re on the way home from work.
There are also larger-scale IoT projects implemented by cities and counties that you may not have heard about. Some large cities use thousands of remote sensors to understand traffic flow or how pedestrians move through cities. Ecologists put tracking devices on animals that transmit GPS data wirelessly. These projects all require at least intermittent Internet access to work effectively.
At this point, you may be thinking that every device (including your laptop) that connects to the Internet should be considered an IoT device. However, experts generally consider IoT devices to be those that wouldn’t traditionally connect to the internet for services. For example, watches wouldn’t traditionally connect to the internet for any reason; on the other hand, your smartwatch totally can so you can get text messages on the go.
Why are IoT devices hacking targets?
The average American household contains more than 15 IoT devices, ranging from cameras to network hubs. If a hacker can gain entry to even one of these devices, they may have a way to get into the network infrastructure. From there, they may be able to exploit further vulnerabilities to extract sensitive information from the network, like your computer keystrokes or even financial data.
While the above scenario is possible for extremely skilled hackers, the far more common tactic is to hack into interior security cameras. Many cheap, internet-connected security cameras have extreme vulnerabilities because they connect via an IP address. Often, these cameras have microphones or the ability to pan around a space – giving these malicious actors a way to threaten unsuspecting homeowners. These IP camera hacking attempts are on the rise, in part due to the extreme ease of hacking and in part due to the scare it can give those at home when it happens.
However, far worse attempts can happen in businesses. If hackers can penetrate an IoT device network at a business, the results can be financially catastrophic. Hackers can easily mine passwords from connected devices if they break into smart hubs or smart TVs. They could also wreak havoc on sensor-based robots in warehouses and factories if they obtain access to their sensors.
What can you do to prevent IoT attacks?
Though IoT attacks are on the rise, there are a few ways to easily prevent them. Perhaps the easiest action you can take is to catalog all of your IoT devices. Once you have a complete list, you can assess how necessary a device is for your house or business. The less necessary that device is, the more you should be inclined to remove it from your network. With fewer devices connected, you’ll have fewer points of potential entry for these malicious actors.
Once you’ve trimmed your IoT device collection, you should update the firmware on all of the devices left. Firmware updates are patches that developers use to make your device more efficient or provide more features, and are often used as ways to patch up detected security vulnerabilities. You should attempt to stay as up to date as possible with firmware updates, as old firmware is much more easily exploitable than new code.
If you want to be extremely secure, you can take government agency advice and port your IoT devices to a separate internet network than the one you use for your computers. By isolating IoT devices to their own network, there’s far less of a chance that hackers can gain access to sensitive passwords and financial information. Experts associated with agencies like the FBI and CIA suggest that using a separate network is the best way to keep your important data safe – at least as long as you don’t share it on the isolated network as well.
IoT attacks are already prevalent and are likely to become more common as more devices are added to our homes and businesses. Now that you know what these devices are and why hackers may be targeting them, it’s time to take a critical look at the devices you own. With the advice provided here, you’ll be able to prevent these attacks from harming you in the near future.