Can Your Smart Appliances Spy on You?

A refrigerator that can help you re-order food or show you what’s inside without opening the door has plenty of appeal in terms of convenience and innovation. And syncing it up with your smart home speaker can provide further connectivity within the comforts of your home. But is it possible for this smart appliance–for all its intriguing features–to be a little too integrated into your life? Is it possible that the device is spying on you? 

The answer is complex–a smart appliance is in no way designed to spy on you, but data on your habits and usage can be shared with the product maker. Hackers can also cause trouble on poorly secured networks to activate devices or listen in on your home. But with a few simple steps, and the acceptance of a small amount of risk, you can empower yourself to use smart appliances securely.

Smart Devices Are Everywhere

Do you have a TV that connects to your favorite streaming service? Or a speaker that looks up movie times for you with a simple voice prompt? You may not have even realized it, but you’re likely already a participant in the substantial trend towards outfitting a smart home. The Internet of Things (IoT)–devices connected to the internet to enhance performance and convenience–is growing at a blistering pace. According to analyst firm Gartner, it is estimated that there will be 20.4 billion connected devices in operation by next year. 

In a busy world in which time and energy are precious commodities, the trend makes sense. If a device can perform with less interventions- say, having to be in the room or in the house to start it- there is tremendous value to a parent on the go or a young professional rushing to get out the door and into the office.

With these conveniences, there are a few tradeoffs in the security of your data, and the vulnerability to hackers.But for many, these risks are outpaced by the benefits they are seeking in a smart home.

Thinking about making the smart move?

So perhaps you’re ready to take the next big step in outfitting your smart home. There are any number of appliances that promise hands-off, optimized performance. Your refrigerator can show you what’s inside without opening the door, or be used to look up recipes. Your dishwasher can be turned on remotely to run a cycle, or alert you when it’s low on detergent. 

Let’s say you decide to go with a smart microwave, so you can get alerts when your chicken is done defrosting and or start cooking via voice command. This may sound like optimal convenience, but it may also leave you wondering about the risks that come with this level of connectivity.

Can your smart appliance spy on you?

Now you’ve purchased your smart microwave and you’re ready to plug it in and set it up. Did you just introduce a device monitoring your every move into your home? Certainly not, but the implications of its connection to WiFi are a bit more nuanced. The internet is a two-way street and the accessibility these smart features open up to you, also open up your data and potentially your devices to outside parties- including product makers and even hackers.

Companies can access your data

In order to provide the convenient functions promised, there is certain data that is sent from your device to the product provider. When you get a notification that your popcorn is ready, the provider also now knows that you enjoy your popcorn break around 7:30. If your microwave has the option to integrate with a smart speaker, the speaker’s provider now also has access to this information. 

Most users may be unaware of this tracking, or accept that while it might be odd to think about your habits being recorded, it is outweighed by the benefits of convenience. Some of the data is used to help the device perform in a way that’s even more tailored to your personal preferences, or just generally improve its efficiency on the whole. Letting your microwave take care of how long to cook a certain type of food and how much heat to emit can optimize your meal more effectively than the stop-and-start guessing game usually played in order to get the temperature and texture right.

For the larger companies supplying the home speaker devices, there is a larger benefit to them in terms of gathering data to triangulate a picture of you as a consumer who may purchase more items if tailored options are sent to you based off an identified need (microwave needs a new light bulb) or preference (might be time to stock up on the popcorn). These companies aren’t simply making money off the home speaker you bought–it’s a conduit for you to continue making purchases off their platform. And data helps them become more effective at driving you towards making that purchase, or making it as passive a process as possible for you.

But is a company spying on you in your home? The answer to that is, “No.” And while they can be often vague and difficult to fully interpret, your microwave most likely comes with terms and conditions that protect the company by outlining what information it is collecting, and if that information is being retained. While it’s not necessarily total transparency, it still provides you some information on what’s going on behind the scenes with respect to your data. You may even have options to shift settings on your appliance or home speaker to control your privacy more to your comfort level. 

Smart appliances are also a target for hackers 

While your microwave itself won’t go the way of Skynet and become self-aware to start tracking your every move, it is possible for hackers to gain access to your network if the connection is established with weak security standards. And by accessing one appliance, a hacker can gain access across any device connected to your WiFi through the network. This opens up a host of concerning possibilities, including exposure of sensitive data such as credit card information- just as though they had hacked into your computer directly. They can also mess with the devices themselves to speak to you, look inside the home, change the temperature, turn on lights or even unlock doors, depending on the connected devices you own. 

While occurrences are rare, some of these invasive acts have happened in people’s homes.  

Hacking is a real concern- but it can be mitigated by taking the time to ensure a secure setup of your WiFi connection. In fact, there are a number of steps you can take to make your smart device usage a more safeguarded experience.

You have the power to control your privacy

It bears reiterating that by the very nature of smart products, there cannot be an expectation of complete privacy around your usage. That said, the opposite is true- there is no need to assume that a company is going to use your information for nefarious means, or that hackers are lurking in your home. Still, it’s important to safeguard what you can to ensure you’re comfortable using your device securely and at a managed level of exposure.

Read the Terms And Conditions

As they say, knowledge is power. While it may be difficult to infer all the implications of what data is being collected and how it’s being used, you can still get a sense of it and use that information to decide what you’re comfortable with and what actions you want to take to limit that company’s access to your data to the extent that permissions and settings are available to do so. For instance, if the idea of voice activation gives you the creeps, avoid connecting the appliance to your smart speaker. What you lose in convenience, you may gain in peace of mind. As you can imagine, many people forgo this research step or are unaware that they have settings options available to them.

Don’t Slack on the Software Updates

You know how your phone doesn’t perform as well when you get behind on updating the operating system? The same principle applies—skipping an update means missing out on key additions and changes that may be helping to secure your appliance.

Secure your network

This is a critical step to preventing hackers from getting in and messing with your appliances or your data. Be sure to select that strongest possible network setup- typically a WPA-2 configuration, which helps password protect and encrypt your connection. Adding multi-factor identification is even better- adding a layer of protection if your password is somehow compromised. As you know, when selecting a password, 1-2-3-4 is not going to cut it. It’s important to use a mix of letters, numbers and symbols; avoid including personal identifiers; and steer clear of passwords you use for other systems. Additionally, you should change the password from the one assigned by default- which can be looked up and found on the internet.

Don’t skimp

This doesn’t mean buying the top of the line model, but going with a little known brand may render your data more vulnerable. 

So, are smart appliances worth the risks?

Ultimately, that is a question only you, the user and homeowner can answer. By knowing the risks, you can decide for yourself whether the possibility of a breach is too much to stomach, or if the low probability of a hack or exploitation (assuming the proper security precautions are in place) is simply a part of our interconnected world. Credit cards are hacked all the time, but it’s difficult to imagine giving up this ubiquitous payment method. GPS apps track and record our locations and driving habits, but many of us would find it difficult to get around as seamlessly without them. While smart appliances have not come close to reaching these levels of dominance in our daily lives, their presence is projected to continue growing substantially over time. Determining the value and relative privacy/security of smart appliances is entirely up to you. 

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