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Smart home privacy concerns: how can you protect yourself?

Whether you realize it or not, it’s likely that you already live in a smart home — or least, a semi-smart home. The term refers to a household in which multiple pieces of hardware, from TVs to smart toilets, have internet connectivity. Even if your own toilet isn’t linked to your Wi-Fi yet, your TV, gaming consoles, and other devices probably are. But is your smart home safe to live in? And how can you protect your privacy when your fridge is harvesting your data?

Malcolm Higgins

Malcolm Higgins

Smart home privacy concerns: how can you protect yourself?

What does smart mean?

What makes a home smart, exactly? Well, first we need to understand how “smart” is defined in this context.

We’ve all heard of smartphones; they’re differentiated from older devices by the fact that they can send and receive data, rather than just calls and texts. Likewise, if your TV is connected to Wi-Fi, it’s also classed as smart.

A piece of hardware doesn’t need to have smart in the name to fall into this category. If your gaming console connects to the internet or your speaker use a Bluetooth link, it’s also a smart device.

So is a smart home just a house full of smart devices? In a simplistic sense, yes — but there’s more to it than that.

The homes of the future (are already here)

When people get excited about smart homes, they’re thinking about more than just watching YouTube on their smart TV.

They’re envisioning a household in which multiple smart devices are continually communicating with each other to make the lives of its occupants easier. This web of internet-enabled devices is sometimes referred to as the internet of things.

Picture the scene: it’s a dark winter’s morning. You switch on the smart lamp beside your bed and it instantly sends a signal to your smart coffee machine downstairs. By the time you leave your bedroom, a steaming espresso is already waiting for you.

That’s the beauty of smart homes: lights, kitchen appliances, heating systems, and more can all be interconnected.

Check out our video on setting up a secure home network below.

Security and privacy concerns

It’s easy to get excited about smart homes, especially now that smart technology is becoming more accessible. Smart fridges, doorbells, sound systems — they’re all cheaper than ever.

The problem is that, while many are adopting these systems in their households, awareness of smart home privacy and data security is still relatively low. NordVPN’s research on smart devices has shown that, although many are wary of the risks, average members of the public don’t always have a strong grasp on the issue.

Two key concerns need to be addressed:

  • Privacy. Smart appliances open up tremendous potential for intrusive data gathering. Because they’re connected to the internet, the companies behind these devices can monitor how and when you use them. They can then leverage that information to target you or other potential customers with tailored advertising or sell the data to other businesses. The more smart tech you have in your household, the more areas of your homelife can be tracked online.
  • Security. Perhaps even more worrying than these privacy concerns are the many smart home security problems. When something is connected to the internet, whether it’s your phone or your house’s heating system, it can be hacked. Terrifying stories of doorbell and camera security issues being exploited by cybercriminals have already been documented, but that could just be the tip of the iceberg. If a malicious person were able to take control of household appliances — your stove, for example — lives could be in danger.

Top 3 safest smart devices

Of course, while smart home privacy issues and security concerns are serious, we’re not saying you shouldn’t take advantage of the benefits these systems offer. Some devices are safer than others, after all:

  • Entertainment systems like TVs and sound systems are not exceptionally risky. While they can still be hacked and could offer criminals access to personal accounts or other devices on your network, there’s less scope for life-threatening attacks (unlike kitchen appliances and central heating, for example).
  • Gaming consoles are also relatively low risk. Like entertainment systems, a potential for hacking and data theft exists, but the threat level is no higher on a PlayStation than a phone or laptop. One thing that’s worth remembering, though, is that the monitor connected to your console may have a microphone or even a webcam built into it, which could allow hackers to spy on you.
  • Lighting is quickly becoming a popular and affordable smart home inclusion, and it’s probably the safest option on this list. Controlling the color and brightness of a lamp or overhead light via an app doesn’t put you or your household in exceptional danger. However, like all smart systems, it can still be hacked.

Remember, there’s no such thing as a completely safe or hacker-proof smart device. If you really don’t want someone to hack your kettle, don’t connect it to the internet.

PRO TIP: Use a separate router for your smart devices. This means that even if your main home router is compromised or hacked, your smart hardware remains secure.

It’s smart to be safe

So smart homes come with a plethora of privacy issues and security concerns — but it’s not all bad news! You can protect your data and your personal safety in various ways while still enjoying the comforts of a smart home.

Here are three smart home safety tips you can implement today:

1. Be careful when buying smart devices

One of the best ways to keep your smart home safe is to do your research before buying new devices and avoid making purchases on a whim. If you’re thinking about getting a new connected speaker or smart fridge, look the device up online and see if other consumers had issues with it.

And make sure to look into the manufacturer. Has it produced similar items in the past? Does it have a good reputation? Thousands of new and untested startup companies are selling smart tech online; be particularly wary of these businesses and the hype around their products.

2. Don’t rely on default passwords and settings

Many smart devices will come with short, simple passwords which are intended to be reset after you purchase them. It’s essential that you take the time to change these. When picking a new password, make sure it’s long and combines characters, numbers, and symbols, and uses no recognizable words or numerical sequences.

It’s also important to review and change the default security and privacy settings. If you can limit how much data a smart device gathers and stores about you, you should.

3. Focus on your router

Most of the devices in your smart home will use your router for internet access. If a hacker can break into your router, they can potentially view the data from everything connected to it. To enhance your router’s security, make sure to change the login code regularly, and avoid using short, easy-to-guess passwords.

You can also configure your router with a VPN, allowing you to secure every other device connected to it with layers of encryption.

Online security starts with a click.

Stay safe with the world’s leading VPN

The future of the smart home

At the moment, most of us live in semi-smart homes. We have multiple smart devices, but the extent to which they communicate is limited. Most operate within their own silo, even if they’re all on the same Wi-fi network.

But that could change soon. When the Facebook metaverse project was launched by Meta, a key part of its vision involved intensely integrated smart home technology. Concerningly, it also wanted smart sensors and movement detectors in the homes of potential metaverse users.

While intense data gathering is always a concern, it’s particular worrying when Meta and Facebook are involved. They’ve been investing in a lot of tech recently which has the potential to invade user privacy: fitness trackers, VR, and even smart glasses are becoming part of the Meta tech apparatus.

Whether Meta actually achieves its ambitious — and hitherto rather vague — goals, our houses and apartments are going to become increasingly “smart.” That means the privacy issues and security risks will grow. For now, awareness of those risks may be the best defense against them.

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Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm Higgins Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm is a content writer specializing in cybersecurity and tech news. With a background in journalism and a passion for digital privacy, he hopes his work will empower people to control their own data.

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